Saturday, December 12, 2009

Review of Flight to Darkness

Gil Brewer’s mini-revival (is the prefix even appropriate anymore?) continues with the republication of his 1952 Fawcett novel Flight to Darkness (New Pulp Press, 2009). The book represents the new publisher’s first foray into reprints, and it seems like a worthwhile effort. Brewer’s work usually follows a fairly straightforward formula: A desperate guy meets a bad girl and proceeds to make questionable decisions until bad things happen, and it’s too late to fix them. It’s easy to accuse Brewer of being repetitive, and it’s true, he was, but his books have a certain desperation about them which makes them seem more immediate than the countless other mass market paperbacks of the era that depended on the same basic plot. Brewer’s effortless conjuring of desperate heroes is because his own life was so full of desperation.

Still, he had his faults. His books often seem rushed, probably because he was under duress to crank something out to get paid and because back in those days no one wanted a hundred thousand word manuscript. The fact that he was an alcoholic probably didn't help.

Flight to Darkness aspires to be more than the average Brewer novel, and it sometimes succeeds, but it still suffers from its ending. Darkness is the story of Korean War vet Eric Garth, who has acted heroically in battle, saving an injured man while under heavy fire. The incident took its toll on Garth, though, and he suffers from what would now be called post traumatic stress disorder.

Eric, a sculptor, is constantly haunted by the thought that he murdered his estranged half-brother Frank with a sculpting mallet.
As the novel opens, Garth is being released to return to Florida with his fiancee Leda, a nurse he met while hospitalized, to claim his half of the family business from his half-brother Frank. The happy couple's trip is derailed in Alabama when Garth is accused of a hit and run. Garth has no memory of the incident, and when his brother shows up, local law enforcement is only too happy to institutionalize Garth indefinitely.

When he finally escapes, he finds out the charges were dropped long ago, so he sets out for Florida, where he discovers that Leda has married Frank, who has conspired to screw him out of the family business. Matters are further complicated by Eric's old flame, Leda's professed desire for him, and the not insignificant fact that Frank soon turns up dead, his head bashed in with a mallet.

The desperation that pervades Brewer's stories works especially well in this novel, since the protagonist is not merely broke (as is often the case in Brewer novels), but of questionable sanity. It is a little difficult to dismiss some of Eric's actions late in the novel, however. After a good, if a little long setup, Brewer has his hero ignore about ten million red flags as the novel rolls toward its inevitable conclusion, and the conclusion is way too convenient. Flight to Darkness is missing the final part of Brewer's formula. At the end, everything turns out all right, which is just way too pat to be satisfying, especially considering the fact that Eric Garth spends ninety-nine percent of the novel doing his thinking below the waist. As is often the case, it seems like Brewer knew the necessary word count was close, so he just put a bow on it. A little more effort would have served this story well. The book has a rather well done pulp climax, but a little denouement would have fleshed it out just enough to make it have the resonance it should have had. It would have pushed this book from a good example of classic paperback fiction to an excellent one.

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