57. Graham Greene – Brighton Rock (1938)
I have looked at Graham Greene’s influence on Burroughs before, and so this blog post will focus less on the book itself and more on what it inspired in Burroughs: the Wild Boys.
Burroughs writes to Ginsberg in the 1950s saying he’s reading Brighton Rock (I need to look up which year exactly, but it’s during his Greene binge, when he reads most of the other ones he cites too). Unlike the other books, that he admires for the strong sense of guilt in their main characters (and, presumably, also for their exotic settings and espionage themes), he says he likes this one as
“it’s about boys -seventeen year-old boooooooiiiiiyyyysss. With razor blades strapped on their fingertips or something. I never got into that razor blade thing exactly…”
In the gay parlance of the day, “boys” referred to young men between 16 and about 24 years old. Burroughs is a fan of “boys”, but, from the photos of him with his boyfriends, he seems to go for those on the older end of that spectrum. The legendary “Kiki”, in the photo I’ve seen of him, is mid-20s and athletic, not the little boy some make him out to be.
But Brighton Rock is not about boys, it’s about one specific boy – Pinky – and the Brighton underground that he tries to take over despite it being clear, in how other crooks relate to him, that he’s too young to do so.
The image of boys (plural) fighting is perhaps drawn from A Clockwork Orange – a book that Burroughs later cut-up with Brighton Rock. It is am image antithetical to Brighton Rock as it is written, although, as B.S. Johnson said, “what writer can compete with the reader’s imagination?” Burroughs might well have made all the other characters boys too.
I speculated in my blog post on The Turn of the Screw about Burroughs’ cutting-up Henry James with Greene and Burgess’ fighting “boys” as part of his working through childhood traumas and integrating them into his Wild Boy world of fighting, sex-crazed young people.
Clearly, the Wild Boys will be a big section in my book-length study, but I still need to get to grips with what they really are. Yes, they are undoubtedly erotic, and the endless Sade-style sex scenes display either Burroughs at his most masturbatory or, alternatively, at his most Scientologistic (“running” the scenes to remove their power).
But what if they were also part of his celestial mythology?
There are two lines in Brighton Rock that jumped out at me.
One is simple – Crab, Pinkie’s henchman – “flickered like an early movie”. This fits Burroughs’ recurring image of “1920 movie” and “static like old movie” images. In Burroughs-land, this may connect Crab to the Nova Mob, travelling through the time-tracks / recordings.
The other comes from a description of Pinkie himself: “the slatey eyes were touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went”.
This descriptive phrase may hold the key to understanding the Wild Boys as celestial creatures. Pinkie, a typical Wild Boy, a living embodiment of power untempered by morals, exists more outside of time than within it. He isn’t trapped in our time-bound existence but merely inhabits this time in order to act, living his full experience beyond this time-frame.
He is, in Gysin’s terms, a space traveller, a time traveller, journeying through Outer Space.
If we extend this reading of Pinkie to cover all of Burroughs’ Wild Boys, we find in them a kind of archetypal entity, present both in this time and through all time. This may explain why they appear to act out scenes without consequence, why they don’t consider consequences in their pursuit of fun and frenzy, and why their appearance (for example at the end of Ah Pook) announces the breakdown of a scene; its descent into violence and miasmic imagery; the onset of “The Flood”.
I’m aware that all roads are leading back to Pook currently, but that might just be because it sits at the centre of the Wild Boys series, and feels like the most polished of Burroughs books.
Either way, I feel like I’m finally zeroing in on the meaning of the Wild Boys. It would also tie back to Islam, through the Sufi idealisation of the boy as embodiment of divine beauty (covered in Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Scandal, a book endorsed by Burroughs).