Underground Reading: The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller
Underground Reading: Space Relations by Donald Barr

Underground Reading: 13 French Street

13_french_street37779_fGil Brewer's 13 French Street is a predictably pessimistic tale of corruption, adultery and murder in a suburban household. Written in 1951, it was Brewer's first success, and sold a million copies over the course of eight printings. Brewer went on to be one of the key authors in the Gold Medal line, and developed a distinct and interesting voice as a writer.

However, as an early effort, 13 French Street, although one of his best-selling works, is also one of his worst.

The story begins on a (alas, not dark and stormy) night. Alex turns up at his friend Verne's door, a visit encouraged by Verne's wife, Petra. Although a surprise, Petra answers the door in her boobs...er... slinky black dress. Verne turns out to be an alcoholic wreck of a man. Although Verne blames his business struggles for his fragile emotional state, Alex quickly discerns that Verne simply isn't man enough for his wife and her spectacular boobs.

The tension between Petra and Alex is palpable. Alex can't get a drink of water without Petra chucking her rack at him, and a simple driving trip to town becomes an athletic exercise in thigh-pressing. Whatever tiny bit of resolve Alex possesses (and it isn't much) is quickly overwhelmed by the sheer force of Petra's attentions (boobs).

The descent into adultery and, eventually, murder is inevitable. Brewer doesn't try to avoid any conventions of the genre as much as wallow in them. Rather than any plot twists, his goal seems to be to horrify the reader by illustrating the shame and corruption of the situation.

Unfortunately, this strategy falls down in two places. First, the reader never actually empathizes with Alex, who is an uninteresting and unappealing character. Second, Brewer's own terse writing style is poorly suited for illustrating scenes of sweeping emotional despair. The author tries to illustrate Alex's forlorn state of mind and his bleak periods of self-loathing, but the attempts fail, bogged down by awkward, forced intensity.

There are a few redeeming moments - Alex has a few flashbacks of his war experiences with Verne that almost ignite a bit of reader empathy, and Verne's ghastly mother makes for a couple humorous scenes. But all goodwill is quickly extinguished the next time Petra walks into the room - a pair of boobs and some laughably sinister wiles. Alex comes off as a cad, Petra is a repulsively shallow and obvious character and Verne is a non-entity. By the time the story trickled around to the inevitable conclusion, I was simply relieved to be done with the lot of them.

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Note: Gil Brewer really is a very interesting character - a perpetually-struggling writer with a distinct voice that eventually drank himself to death in 1983. I heartily suggest this essay by Bill Pronzini. Apparently 13 French Street was filmed (by the French, naturally) last year. Go figure.