If noir has a holy trinity, then it is of course sex, violence and money — each alone powerful enough to destroy anyone without much effort; but when you mix all three, you get what I like to think of as the whole point and appeal of the noir genre. You get an intense concentration of what it really means to be human. You get an honest street-level view of what it is that makes us tick.
These things are our desires, our motivations, and they are the rewards we seek for our endeavours while we’re alive. They are the reasons why we bother to put our shoes on in the morning.
The madness and desperation of noir, then, might be the manifestation of the neuroses that we have acquired in the pursuit of — and the failure to find real satisfaction in — these things.
But these three driving forces in our lives are very different to each other. For a start, only sex and violence exist quite naturally, and are common to other species on this planet. Money, though, is something manmade — an elaborate, planned construct that evolves more quickly than the natural world.
Now, you could probably argue with me here that paper money is only a physical symbol of the power struggles, bartering survival strategies and co-existence trade-offs that exist plentifully amid the animal kingdom. And of course you may well be quite right.
But I am talking here about the street-level view of these things, remember — all three are metaphors for power, if you so choose to look at them — and what I mean is the folding paper stuff that we must have in our pockets if we want to negotiate the daily grind without friction.
Money — considering its position in the holy trinity — is one of the lesser explored avenues of noir fiction and film noir, reduced sometimes in analysis to a plot device or trigger in the ‘bigger’ story of sex and violence between lovers; or at other times swollen up into ‘grander’ discussions of the quest for power and the inevitable corruption that comes with it.
Benjamin Appel‘s ‘Brain Guy,’ then, is a novel about money — about being unable to pay your diner bill; blowing a windfall in a night on sex and booze and self-aggrandizement; and the shame in not being able to ask your sweetheart’s parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage.
The ‘Brain Guy’ is Bill Trent, an educated young man who currently scratches a meagre living as a rent collector for his deceased father’s best friend, Mr. Stanger. The very first line of the novel is, “Who could he shake down for some dough?” We are in New York City during the Great Depression, where industry continues and some men are still making great fortunes.
For a crumbum on the streets, however, the world is less rosy. But for a smart man there are opportunities galore. (“He was hard-boiled. Being soft was nothing in the pocket.”)
Bill uses his initiative and visits Paddy, a lowdown pimp, whose operation out of one of Stanger’s properties is no secret. He goes to ‘tax’ Paddy for ten bucks. But he stumbles upon a murder instead — witnesses it first hand — and is introduced to the figure of McMann, who is brought in to dispose of the still-warm body. Immediately Bill is drawn to the capable McMann. “He was significant to him. He didn’t know why. It was just so.” He knows that here is a “hard, ruthless, courageous man.” And he wants to be a man of this kind, too.
These two shocks — the murder and the encounter with McMann — give Bill a new direction, and soon he is venturing out on his own path of crime, coupled with the primitive McMann, who is eager to exploit Bill’s comparative intellect as a ‘brain guy.’ What begins as a string of relatively minor league hold ups of cheese shops and pork butchers, begins to turn into a fledgling criminal gang trying to roughhouse it with the big guys.
While this might sound like a fairly by-the-numbers life o’ crime narrative, it is clear very quickly that Appel has loftier ambitions. Amid the hardboiled dialogue (“One good sock fixes ‘em all alike”) there are passages of naturalistic New York atmosphere. To some, this will be received as the much-dreaded ‘purple prose.’ But I think that — despite one-too-many self-indulgent paragraphs and awkward similes — Appel manages to get away with it. The Depression-era city streets are rendered with vivid sights and sounds and smells, and Appel undoubtedly has a great ear for dialogue. The low-level world that he depicts is authentic enough to keep things interesting. And there are at least a few passages — such as the junkie hitman on the trail of McMann — that go beyond the serviceable into the realm of great literary styling.
The most potent figure in the novel is the eponymous anti-hero himself, and it is the frame that Appel places around Bill’s story that sets the novel apart from the clichéd work of a pulp hack.
This isn’t necessarily the usual rags to riches story, and though it touches on the idea of moral corruption through criminal endeavour, Bill does not end the novel staring out of dead, soulless eyes, a testament to his blackened, withered heart.
He ends it just as desperate and terrified as he was when we first met him, with only enough money to pay the first couple of months’ rent on his gang’s new club house.
Throughout his less than stellar rise, Bill is racked by self-doubt and fear. He knows that he is a pretender in this world. Undressing for Madge, the whore he loves, he talks big and insults her constantly. “He felt uneasy, his heart bursting … He hated the idea that she had lived life more strongly than himself.”
Similarly, as he waits in the getaway car outside one of the joints that he and McMann are hitting, he worries that his partner isn’t going to show. Then he sees McMann sauntering towards him down the street. “His heart rushed forward as if he were in love and McMann his approaching sweetie.”
Which is precisely the story that Appel is more interested in telling — Bill’s path to becoming something that he clearly is not. He may well become a big kingpin in the uncertain far-off future, but Appel cuts things off before we get to see him there. From what clues we have to go on, we can only speculate on Bill’s fate.
Towards the end, though, we are given part of an internal monologue. “When I get five thousand I’ll quit and become Bill again, not a hunk of life.” This comes just a few paragraphs after he has promised himself that he will quit once he reaches three thousand.
The reader is left wondering whether he’ll even get that far. As Paddy keeps saying about Bill and McMann: “If you guys live, you’ll be big shots. If you croak, what the hell.”
‘Brain Guy,’ then, is not the great noir fiction tale about money, but it is a vibrant, atmospheric journey into the gutter and a skewed portrait of one man who confuses a roll of dirty greenbacks for salvation. That he never sees the fruits of his endeavours is the point. If he lives, he might become a big shot. If he croaks, well, what the hell.