‘Brighton Rock,’ by Graham Greene

Brighton RockBrighton Rock by Graham Greene

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Found my copy on a stoop. Was totally worth picking up.

View all my reviews

At the end of this comes, for me, a startling — and strangely calming — quote from a priest. To avoid a spoiler, I won’t provide much context; it is enough to say that the priest tries to comfort someone by saying that

You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.

Graham Greene wrote this novel in 1938, and that line — ellipses included — has had a long, rich life. Longer and richer, I might say, than the book itself, two film adaptations notwithstanding.

It is appalling.

via The Appalling Strangeness | Segullah.

It comes up quite often in essays that traffic in contemporary views on theology. And in books about religion in literature, (e.g. “To Promote, Defend and Redeem,” “Redeeming Modernity,” etc.

“Indeed, if Greene really had instilled a doubt of hell in the reader’s mind, then the spiritual thriller which is “Bright Rock” would cease to thrill.” (p. 124, “The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961” by Ian Turnbull Ker)

Even now, it resonates with bloggers and tweeters. There apparently is a lot of depth to plumb in those few words, if we can believe what we read. Given Mr. Greene’s own, shall we say, interest in writing about Catholicism, there are probably some psychologies between the lines as well.

But the Catholic novelist is more than unhappy

via Faith Noir: On Graham Greene and the Catholic Novel | The Harvard Advocate.

Reading Greene is not a theologically comfortable experience.

via Graham Greene and the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God | BMS World Mission.

I read the words and was struck with a kind of knowing. It was jarring because I was so focused on the book and so near the end. I was racing to the finish with not a little enthusiasm, and hoping to get there before the end of a Very Important Nap. I was sure I had heard that sentence before, and my first thought was the Pauline epistles. It seemed natural, and it was certainly a natural thing for a priest to quote from.

But of course, that is not where I first remembered it from.

“You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive.

via The West Wing Transcripts.

That is from “Two Cathedrals,” Season 2 Episode 22. And it leans a little toward the melodramatic. President Barlett’s grieving for the death of his secretary manifests itself in an angry, one-sided conversation into the echoing stillness of the National Cathedral, complete with an overliterary matzah ball delivered, I imagine, with a knowing smirk from Aaron Sorkin.

If you ask me, and I know you didn’t, I would say about half the power of that scene (see below) comes from the fact that about half the lines are spoken in Latin. It’s a little like how Americans think British people sound smart, whether they actually are or not. Mr. Greene’s main character from “Brighton Rock” tosses out Latin phrases from time to time, too, and these take on a menacing tone a little ways out of proportion with his real-world potential.

So does this quotation, if you ask me. What does it mean — the appalling strangeness —  if not, Stop thinking so much?


It’s the End, Mr. Brown






Chapter 1: The Pantomime Horse

11-29_11-30-11 - BCN incl things for blog, beggars 004Shadows stretched long, languid arms across the plaza. The cool stone of the buildings, of the walkways, softened into purple.

On the table in front of a seated man there was a lean bottle of wine, a lump of bread and a white wedge of mountain cheese.

The man sipped from his glass and watched yellow bars of sunlight retreat from view. He thought about many things, but kept coming back to the permanence of the place. How many lazy eyes over the centuries had contemplated these same shadows, constantly changing but stretching familiarly across the same lines and angles.

He picked up a piece of bread and dropped it into his mouth. And as he chew he noticed a brown pantomime horse picking its way toward him through the disorder of metal tables and chairs.

It was a standard two-man rig, uniformly brown, with the tail and mane made of coarse yarn. The horse stepped nimbly, but cautiously, closer.

Soon, it stopped, nearly on top of the man at the table. He looked up and could see into the eyes behind the mask. The eyes in the horse stared back.

He said nothing, not exactly eager to engage with what he assumed was a busker but not exactly dreading it either.

The horse did nothing.

And the little noises piercing the quiet of the square, insulated as it was from nearby busy thoroughfares, became a little more noticeable. He could hear the faint laughtrack of passing tourists, the buzz of the traffic — and the breathing of the person inside the horse.

“Yes?” he said, involuntarily.


He shifted in his seat, which he began to notice was a bit uncomfortable. He reached for the cheese and sliced off a small piece.

“What’s the trick?” he said, chewing. “I saw this once, I think in Herald Square.”

He paused. “I’m pretty sure.”

He was lying.

“They never expect money for it,” he said, trying to sound sure of himself.

Still, nothing.

He reached for his glass, took an awkward sip and made an abrupt motion to the waiter across the plaza. Then he stood, his chair jerking and briefly shrieking as it grated along the stone pavers.

But as reached into his pocket for his wallet, the horse finally made a move. It clopped noisily in a half-circle and gestured with its head in the direction it had come from.

He had pulled a 20-euro note from his wallet, but had stopped thinking about his bill. He looked at the horse, at the eyes inside the horse.

He dropped the money on the table and made a move as if to step around the back of the horse. But the horse moved carefully, politely, to block him, turning again and gesturing in the same direction.

“The Algorithm doesn’t see the outliers. O.K.?” came an attempt at an explanation in a dark room. Hanging on the wall behind three people huddld under a lamp was a pantomime horse costume.

“A pantomime horse doesn’t register,” the voice continued. “They see the sameness, the ordinariness of the mass of people. The Algorithm absorbs this, condenses and distills, and out comes pure data. Data that is perfect. Completely errorless in its broad sketches.

“It’s not that it predicts the future. It creates the possibilities that make up the future, which even a fool can see is the same thing.”

“Your trip to the square felt spontaneous, I am sure. But it would have been easy to win a bet on where you would go on an afternoon like this. And what you would order. And the chance that you would do it again grows greater with each sip. The Algorithm works on you with the same inexorable force as that bottle of wine.”

Other than the three people, and the costume, the room was bare.

“Think of those popular science shows that try to explain the multiverse. What you see on the television is an array of vibrating dots. The lives of trillions of beings jiggling like a salesman’s neck tie.

“No. See? No. How can you get to the heart of it with that? You have to come back around. Start over.”

The man talking put his hands down, flat on his knees. Then brought one up to his nose. He arched his back and pointed his face up in the air.

“Think of a dog’s nose,” he said. “Empty spaces next to fitted, sensitive membranes, each of which is wrapping around the folds of the membrane next to it. The anatomy of it is a marvel, really. But take it a step further. Imagine an endless cavern of tiny niches, wending passages and yawning spaces. In some, channels connect. In others, they are merely close. In still others, one space is like a remote outpost, a firewatcher in the Yukon or something. Nothing but void. And all of it, the spaces, the connections, led around by a thinking, but unknowning, whole.”

The man paused.

“The dog, you see?”

He paused again.

“Second flit by here,” he said, pointing to one side of his nose. “But a few feet away,” he added, pointing to the other side, “in a flex of a muscle, a torrent of years passes.

“Some universes track the same times, same realities. Others have stopped altogether. It’s all there. On an ever-jerking, snuffling snout, thrusting into still richer worlds.”

One of the other men made a motion as if to interrupt, but the first man waved him off.

“It’s not a prediction. It’s an echo. All that needs to be done is to give you the meagre means. To ensure you’ll be here. Then the future unfolds a bit more. Like a road map. Stomach pills, larger pants, mere waypoints.

“It’s the inherent fragility of the movement that is the appeal, like those poor bastards in Ireland. An uprising in every generation, reliably and mercilessly repressed.

“No reasonable person could have hoped to succeed in their shoes, but it’s that flawed method, fragile as it is, that is the only source of success. To resist in any other way would require mind-boggling computing power, bottomless resources. These guys pick up a few funny hats, a few yards of felt, and they’ve got a movement.”

Things Your Father Told You to Do, and Things He Didn’t

father-and-son-talkIn our humble opinion, though, learning how to drive stick is one of those time-honored skills that just might save your tuchus. Knowing how to drive stick could also get you out of a sticky situation. Like fleeing the scene in a “borrowed” getaway car.

via <a href=”http://www.cartalk.com/content/learn-drive-stick-3″>Learn to Drive Stick | Car Talk</a>.

It’s the fear of every father: Your son never learned to drive a stick shift, and you just know that someday it is going to bite him in the rump.

Well, it happened over the weekend, when campus police officers at the University of Texas in Houston Police Department responded to a report of an unusual carjacking. Apparently, two teenagers had picked the wrong car to steal.

The first part of the crime went according to plan. The vehicle was chosen, and the victim was removed from the car. But things got complicated when the teens tried to make their getaway. All at once it became apparent that a life of crime is harder than it looks. Also, driving a stick shift.

But in an inspired act of problem-solving, the thieves actually appealed to the victim for an impromptu disquisition on the modern manual transmission. Alas, the circumstances were not ideal. No impression was made on the boys’ driving abilities, and after a few blocks they kicked their instructor out of the car.

The victim quickly called the police, and what should have been a high-speed pursuit quickly devolved into a foot chase.

“Apparently they had issues operating the vehicle,” a police spokesman said. “They then jumped out of the vehicle and ran on foot.”

The boys were quickly rounded up and the vehicle returned to its owner, the mysteries of its locomotion intact.

Chapter 57: The Backhoe

For Bob, things never felt quite right until the day that Sanford bit him.

It had been one of those weeks. Bob had been late to the office three times; R-section had returned an entire packet of his reports, with extensive revisions; he had spilled coffee and ink on himself in rapid succession, twice; and the soft-serve machine in the B-section cafeteria had been giving him fits.

Then, that Friday, Bob had come home, wearily. He went into his kitchen, pulled open the fridge with a defeated sigh and was reaching for an alcohol-enriched beverage when, through his window he saw Sanford steer a bright yellow backhoe onto his lawn.

This was — to say the least — a startling departure from the cordial, if disinterested, detente that had prevailed in the years since that unpleasant week when Sanford moved in.

Bob couldn’t believe it. He stood at the back window, his eyes gaping open, his jaw involuntarily dropped. Out in the orange glow of the twilight he could see Sanford, grinning maniacally in the black leather seat of an enormous, metallic, earth-rending dinosaur.

Sanford appeared to be having trouble maneuvering the machine to where he wanted it, and the backhoe’s tires carved long brown arcs of mud down what was already an unsightly clot of Bob’s crabgrass. Sanford wrenched the gear shift with great determination, and the machine lurched forward and backward, the tires churning up clumps of green and brown.

Bob was completely still while watching all of this; then something inside of him snapped. At the time, though he would have no memory of this later, Bob felt like he could hear the actual snapping.

He slammed his fridge shut, kicked open his back door and charged toward the backhoe in long angry strides. Sanford’s head jerked once, spasmodically, in Bob’s direction. Bob did not have time to check his forward momentum — he scarcely had time to change the determined expression on his face — when Sanford sprang from his seat, high in the air like cartoon animal.

Sanford’s eyes were shot bright red, and his mouth curled into an awful grin, and before Bob could say, “What the hairy balls do you think you are doing?” — before Bob had even formed the thought in his head — Sanford had Bob’s shoulders pinned to the ground and had clamped his mouth firmly to Bob’s collar bone.

Fear charged into Bob’s mind as quickly as he had departed his kitchen. It muscled aside all the self-righteous, sarcastic anger that had propelled him out of the house, it blotted out the building disappointments of the previous week, and left him a quivering, doughy slug of sharp, painful insecurity.

He made a terrified squeak, and then heard — no, he only felt it — Sanford’s teeth slicing through tendon and muscle, cracking bones. Sanford’s bulk pressed him into the earth. It seemed to Bob that the ground was starting to close over his head and envelop him in cold, lonely darkness.

But at that moment, when an ordinary person might begin to hallucinate delusions of an afterlife, a strange sensation began welling inside Bob. It was cooling, soothing and wonderful; it seemed to spread from his neck down, slowly at first but then in surging gouts like a cascade of spring water under his skin. It kept going, swirling and bubbling inside of him — or so it felt — rippling into his stomach and running down his legs and out to the tips of his fingers.

At length, he noticed that he was no longer looking up at the sky but at a kaleidoscope of soft colors. He heard music. He saw friendly, fuzzy creatures. He smelled beautiful things. And then it was all gone and he was standing on his lawn next to the quietly humming backhoe. Next to him was Sanford, his chin and neck and T-shirt soaked liberally in Bob’s blood.

Bob smiled. Sanford smiled back, more broadly and more lovingly than Bob could remember anyone ever having smiled at him, or at anyone, for that matter.

He inhaled deeply and looked back toward his house. The sun slanted down in soft orange light. Everything looked as pretty as an Easter basket.

Bob was about to step in that direction when he felt his shoulder move awkwardly. He looked down at his own blood-soaked shirt and realized that he could see on his collar bone the bottom of a serious wound. He casually touched his hand across the mouth-shaped hole Sanford had left — and felt sublime relief.

There was no pain, there was no bleeding. Where once his pimply neck had shimmered in pale, clammy whiteness there was a misplaced, crusted crimson epaulet. And Bob exhaled with satisfaction and contentment.