August 19, 2014
“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” -the first line of Sam Fuller’s Brainquake
Sam Fuller was not one for the slow burn. He preferred instant incineration. He learned his potent pulp technique in the NYC tabloids as a crime reporter, where an attention grabbing lede was all that mattered. The same skill is applied to his movie potboilers, as in The Naked Kiss‘ gonzo opener, where a bald prostitute assaults a john with her purse. His penchant for arresting opening scenes also appears in his novels – one of which is appearing in English for the first time this year. Fuller wrote Brainquake in the early 1990s, but it was only published in French and Japanese, rejected by U.S. editors for being too “European”. Intrepid pulp purveyors Hard Case Crime have corrected this injustice by releasing Brainquake last week in its English debut, complete with a gloriously seamy cover painting by Glen Orbik. The book is a densely plotted crime fiction farrago, deeply informed by Fuller’s experience as an exile. Ever since his inflammatory anti-racist White Dog was banned from U.S. cinemas, Fuller could only find work in Europe, and so he moved there with his wife Christa. The center of Brainquake is a monosyllabic bagman for the NYC mob who ends up on the lam in Paris. The bagman also happens to suffer from hallucination-inducing migraines that lend the book its title. Stacked with memorable characters, from a serial killer in priest’s garb to a melancholy French resistance fighter, the book is an overheated, overstuffed and never less than entertaining slab of Fuller’s expansive pulp imagination.
In 1990 Fuller was working on the British-French co-production Chiller, a TV anthology adapted from the short stories of Patricia Highsmith. For his episode Fuller chose The Day of Reckoning, a violent eco-parable about industrial chicken farming that ends with the patriarch getting pecked to death. Fuller had twelve days to shoot it, and didn’t have time to thoroughly vet each location. For the climactic pecking, they chose a small farm with hundreds of chickens. What they weren’t aware of was how they animals would react to being exposed to sunlight – and that the owner of the farm was more than willing to let them die, since they were headed for the slaughter. And so, Fuller recalls, “Blinded and terrified, the maniacal chickens scurried around until they finally dropped dead on the ground right in front of our crew.” But Fuller could always look on the bright side: “The good thing about all those insane chickens was that they got my creative juices really stirred up.”
It was at this point, with images of horrific chicken deaths dancing through his head, that he completed Brainquake at a place outside Avignon, with his manuscript and “a couple boxes of cigars”. The story circles around Paul, a former mute who learned to speak in gravelly croaks, and who is a reliable bagman for the mob. He is perfect for the job – anonymous, quiet and reliable. Except for those hallucination-inducing migraines, which Paul dubs “brainquakes”, and are preceded by the sound of a flute and flickering color. He is life is upended when he becomes infatuated with mob wife Michelle. Her husband, a low level bookie, is the one who is gunned down by his baby, thanks to a booby-trapped stroller. Paul is overcome by a desire to protect her, and instead becomes a pawn in Michelle’s long con.
This is a massive condensation of the book, which introduces fascinating, seemingly central characters, only to gruesomely kill them off a few pages later. Also emerging as pivotal are the inflexible black detective Zara, the star of the force who becomes enveloped in the case. Then there is the bureaucratic machine of the mob, made human in the figure of “The Boss”, the mother-figure whom Paul reports to, and Hampshire, the big boss who calls the shots from afar. In Brainquake the whole world is controlled by the rackets, with little hope for those who toil under its thumb. Fuller uses imagery of fleshy decay. Here he describes a corpse:
The tunnel between Al’s lower teeth at closest focus was a cutaneous crypt. His tongue drooped down a corner of his mouth through red lava. Fingernail scratches were red trenches in a Sahara wadi. The ceiling bulb reflecting in his frozen eyes was elliptical Daliism. Taken by the police photographer for his personal collection, the photos would eventually win acclaim when he published them in an art book selling for fifty dollars a copy.
His style consists of these quick jabs of imagery, staccato sentences that sketch out scenes of vivid immediacy. These are the strongest passages of the book, and convey the same giddy collision of high and low art as his punchy kino fist movies. The book bogs down in interior monologues, set off by italics. He reserves these to describe Paul’s brainquakes, but they are repetitive and brake the narrative velocity to a screeching halt. There is also a French resistance fighter who narrates his own nightmares, a beloved hero who is carrying an unrelievable guilt for an act of cowardice during the Occupation. There are no heroes in Fuller’s world, only survivors.