Monday, August 20, 2012
Bronson: Blind Rage (aka Bronson #1)
Bronson: Blind Rage, by Philip Rawls
No month stated, 1975 Manor Books
This was the first of three novels about a "street vigilante" named Bronson. I suspect that Manor Books just outsourced a Death Wish ripoff idea to a handful of writers and lumped it all together as a "series." For the Bronson books are a series in the loosest sense; each volume was written by a different author, and there's no continuity between the novels. No one knows who wrote this incredible first installment; the second one, Streets of Blood, was written by my man Leonard Levinson; the third, Switchblade, was written by Joseph Chadwick.
Levinson has told me he was just contracted by Manor to write a vigilante novel about a character named "Bronson," with no guidance from Manor to follow any series template or continuity. Joseph Chadwick was probably told the same for Switchblade. Given this, I consider Bronson moreso just three separate, standalone novels, related only by the fact that the protagonist in each is named "Bronson," and also the covers for all three volumes were drawn by the artist Raymond Kursar. Even Bronson himself is a different character in each book, ranging from the sadist of this first volume to a more considerate sort of vigilante in Switchblade, as Marty McKee has noted.
But on to the novel at hand, Blind Rage. Simply put, this book is incredible, and easily one of the best men's adventure novels I've yet had the pleasure to read. But make no mistake, this is a brutal novel, not for the squeamish, a novel of raw and nihilistic violence. And yet for all that it is written with a deft, literate hand; whoever this version of "Philip Rawls" was, he was a hell of a writer. His characters spring to life, such that you actually care for them, his narrative is masterful, and he doesn't POV-hop a single damn time.
The only failing (at least, I thought it was a failing at first) is the character Bronson himself. He is a sadist of the first order in Blind Rage, and the problem is we never get a sense of the man he was before the murder of his wife and children. In fact we never even meet those characters; Blind Rage opens with the murder of Bronson's wife, as two hoodlums rape her and kill her, before moving on to the kids (this part thankfully is not described). When we pick up with Bronson he's dealing with the fact that the courts let the murderers off scott free; it turns out they were twins, notorious sickos from California, and due to their influence over powerful people the brothers were able to escape justice due to some legal manuevering.
Bronson, we briefly learn, married into the upper crust of society, and his wealthy friends implore him to just let it go and move on. Bronson meanwhile tracks down the culprits, determined to get vengeance. But nowhere in the novel do we have any flashbacks from Bronson to his wife or kids; in today's world this of course would be played up to maximum maudlin effect, with Bronson frequently in tears at the memory of playing catch with his kids or holding his wife. There's none of that here -- Blind Rage is as lean and mean as you'd expect a piece of '70s pulp to be. My mistake though was thinking this was a miss on the author's part. I was wrong; instead, Rawls was merely setting us up to truly gut us later in the novel.
The author brings to life the dark underbelly of Cincinnati, not to mention that of his protagonist. Bronson discovers that he has a hell of a mean streak -- not that he pauses to reflect on it. But within a day of beginning his search, he's already acquired a 9mm pistol with silencer and blown away a few people, including an innocent floozie. As he tracks around, picking up the pieces that will lead him to the rapist-murder brothers (their names are Bennie and Bernie, he discovers), Bronson continues to kill in cold hate, especially those who could later identify him. In particular there is the first of many disturbing scenes where Bronson coldly murders a defenseless young streetwalker, merely because she's provided him with information on where the "Bs" (as the brothers are known) are temporarily staying, and Bronson's afraid she could later identify him to the police.
But the violence he dishes out to the guilty... Anyway, the way the violent life of the lone wolf goes in these novels, you know Bronson will be picking up a woman soon. And it's another feather in Rawls's cap that the female character, a pretty Hispanic named Teresa, is without question the strongest in the novel, leaping right off of the page. She's only 17, an orphan in all but name (her dad, who hates her for not being a son, has kicked her out), and much wiser than her years would imply. She comes on strong to Bronson, who has rented a room in the rundown tenement building where Teresa lives. Soon she's living with him, and Rawls develops a touching rapport between the two. I mean, no kidding, these characters really get to you, and Rawls handles the relationship with aplomb.
Bronson further arms himself with a shotgun, leading to another violent scene where he takes on some hoodlums. Teresa proves her worth here, backing up Bronson with the 9mm. Not because she's the cliched "tough chick" of action pulp, but because she's in love with Bronson, and again it all comes off very well. Even better is a later scene where Bronson and Teresa are attacked by some Hispanic gangsters during a blizzard, and Teresa slices the hell out of one of them with her pocket switchblade. She's one tough cookie for sure, and her dialog is almost like street poetry. Is it clear yet how much I loved this novel?
Our "hero" Bronson though is something of a schizophrenic. The quiet scenes with Teresa are touching because it's obvious they're developing feelings for one another, and Teresa, who eventually learns who Bronson is and what he's doing, commits herself to his cause and wants to stay with him through thick and thin. Bronson meanwhile begins to realize he too is falling in love. But when he gets to the associates of Bennie and Bernie, he's all business, even if it's people who only know the brothers tangentially.
The stuff Bronson pulls throughout this novel is insane, from gunning people down in cold blood to stripping a woman, tying her to her bed, dousing her with kerosene, and setting her on fire -- putting the lighted match to her pubic hair, naturally. I haven't even mentioned the part where he literally emasculates a guy with a shard of glass, then proceeds to eviscerate the guy. Or the scene where he ties down another guy, builds a wire cage around his hand and head, and sets hungry rats loose into the cages, where they slowly gorge themselves on the guy's bodyparts! Or how about the part where he pours Drain-O on another guy's exposed genitals? Yep, that's our hero.
As mentioned, though, Bronson never once reflects on this sadism. Maybe once or twice, early in the novel, he thinks back on how he murdered someone, but it's always with the concern that he might get caught. It soon becomes a bit of recurring dark comedy that every time Bronson kills someone in a brutally sick fashion, Rawls will write how Bronson methodically wipes away his fingerprints. It soon becomes the punchline to a morbid joke.
Rawls crams every lurid, exploitative thing he can into this book. The villains are thoroughly despicable, and the crazy thing is -- they all deserve those sadistic deaths! They make snuff films, they put children in sexual bondage, the works. And of course they get away with it all, due to the uselessness of the courts as is mandatory in '70s pulp, but also due to their influence over important people, who apparently go to the twin brothers for all their lurid needs. Bronson sets out to even the score on this point as well.
Blind Rage works as a standalone novel, and one does not get the impression that it is leading into a sequel. It comes to a fitting end, Bronson's entire tale fitting within one novel. My groundless suspicion is that some author sent an unsolicited manuscript to Manor Books and an editor there decided to turn it into a series. Really though, it's not. And really, I'd love to know who this version of "Philip Rawls" was. As far as the genre goes, he's a master, well above the average. I don't believe he's someone I've read before. The narrative style was not familiar from any other books I've read.
The author left some clues, though; he likes to use the word "pillow" as a verb, for one; ie, "He pillowed the shotgun to his shoulder." I've never seen that done before. Also, in one instance he refers to a bullet in the narrative as a "pellet;" the only other author I've seen do this is Russell Smith. But this clearly isn't the work of Smith, despite the focus on rats. And speaking of focus, Rawls spells the word "focused" as "focussed," which I believe is the British fashion. So who knows, maybe he was British. If he was, he certainly had a handle on inner-city American slang. But the book itself doesn't read like any of the British pulp I've yet encountered, which always seems a bit too "pristine" for me. At any rate, the writing here is incredibly strong and I can only hope to come across more work from this author someday -- not to mention to find out who he was.
I've read a lot of these novels over the years, so it takes something really special to get to me. Blind Rage did. In fact this is one of the few books in the genre that unsettled me, not just due to the graphic sadism but also the impact of the characters and their fates. It's miles beyond the usual output of the men's adventure genre, and it's a shame it's so obscure. I recommend it without reservation -- this is one hell of a great novel.