You know where you are right away, right at the first chemical incendiary of absurd circumstance, the first splat of comic-strip-in Satan’s-newspaper tough talk, and the first whiff of tortured moral crisis: you’re in the chaotic city center of downtown Fullertopia. Samuel Fuller’s “long-lost” novel Brainquake—written in the early ’80s, during Fuller’s self-imposed exile in France, and until now unpublished—begins with a protracted set piece that involves a cognitively impaired mob bagman watching a couple pushing a baby carriage through Central Park, and the out-of-nowhere, point-blank shooting of the father in the throat by way of a hidden gun nestled between the infant’s legs, somehow triggered to his dangling pull toy. (There’s also a booby-trap bomb under the presumably wriggling squaller, set to reduce everyone to cooked meat when the baby is lifted out.)
It takes a certain psychotic, childish, untempered gall to start a novel this way, as if the author was maniacally impatient not only with the conventional notions of genre storytelling but with reality itself—too much cause and effect, too much mamsy-pamsy “rationality,” too many goddamn limitations to what monstrously bad things can happen to get the story scrambling to its feet already. That, you could say, is Fuller in a nutshell. For Fuller, genre fictioneering and reality always had a troublesome, violent marriage—the two were at each other’s throats on the honeymoon, long before we showed up, and by the time Fuller had arrived to become one of the twentieth century’s most distinctive pulp creators, mediation was impossible, and custody of the offspring a matter of open combat.
Fuller worked for the Hollywood studios, but the nature of his throttling sensibility is still difficult to accommodate, because it detours so far down its own stylistic back road, and so far away from virtually every other standard of craft and taste. (Certainly, vague claims, like those made by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, of Fuller being a “great storyteller” hardly articulate a thing, and in their reductionism are sometimes far off the mark.) He rarely did nuance when whiplash hyperbole was an option. Whereas an ordinary genre film trundles along within the borders of what’s diegetically conceivable, using human behavior most of us can empathize with, Fuller always turned the dial to 11, clearly devoted to transforming the story’s ideas about human folly or evil into looming, iconic Molochs of experience.
There was always something Miltonian about him, even when he trafficked in petty crime and stock-noir bottom-feeders. As you could guess, Brainquake is every inch the unleashed all-American bad-time story, bursting with underworld know-how, rotten crime shit, lurid misfortune, and bulldozed innocence. The focus is on Paul, an on-the-spectrum misfit with the titular epilepsy-like cranial condition, nurtured as a bagman thanks to his unemotive demeanor and blind sense of obedience, and how he secretly pines for the beautiful woman with the baby carriage, even sending her anonymous love poems, before witnessing the bizarre park shooting. Then, he decides to abandon all of his self-effacing underworld USA ethos for her sake and flee with her out of the country, taking a sackful of the mob’s money with them.
Fuller is in staccato-chapter fifth gear while filling in the broader canvas of goldbrickers and sociopaths around Paul, and the classic crime-thriller mechanics of how and why the gears of fate start turning, mostly out of Paul’s view. The style is uproariously hyper-Fullerian—whenever the novel is actually set (there are ’80s-style cordless phones and Polaroids, and a hitman with a semi-distant ’Nam history), Fuller remains on the page a sensibility born and bred in the hothouse of ’30s–’40s genre reflexes. The patois of the novel’s narration feels enthusiastically stuck in 1953; the ethnically diverse mob characters have names like Zookie, Hoppie, and Max the Mouthpiece, and the exposition about the underworld’s high-volume numbers racket—necessitating multiple bagmen carrying millions of dollars every day—runs to guns, fronts, drops, and dames. You can see Fuller, holed up in a Paris garret with cigars and Scotch to last a year, avoiding the outside world as it moves on with its day and rapping out his anachronistic tale on a manual typewriter, growling the dialogue aloud to himself.
The book’s recognizable and rather adorable tough-mug voice feels decades out of date and yet somehow timeless, just as, say, Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) or even White Dog (1982) pulse with a retrogressive hysteria that’s still as muscular and scalding as the oldest blues recordings or the last Goya paintings. Fuller’s throwback mercenary-criminal tone doesn’t leave the bruises that the scarring prose achievements of people like James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy, or even Elmore Leonard do; rather, it creates a pulp-universe playback loop in which yesteryear traumas continue to resound in a contemporary world.
Meaning, you don’t read Brainquake to get lost in a ripped-from-the-news crime-fiction daydream but as hard-bitten time travel; Fuller’s novel (one of at least a half dozen published over what’s now a seventy-year span) lives in between American epochs, like Fuller himself, as endemic to the cultural landscape in his last decades and beyond as any hot-shot new writer or indie filmmaker. That’s because, as per Faulkner, the past isn’t past, and cultural sensibilities linger and grow for lifetimes and longer, just as old lions like Fuller in 1983 were (are) still roaring and had (have) an equal claim on the media foreground, however much our contemporary mind set prioritizes the Brand-New and attempts to delegitimize voices and ideas that carry the authentic DNA of age, memory, and traces of bad things that happened not so long ago. Fuller, the man and the work, remains living proof that time doesn’t roll today as Hollywood and the media say it does—it grinds, it haunts, it ferments, it stays in the blood like booze unprocessed by a sick liver. It’s ours to own.
Michael Atkinson writes about film for Sight & Sound, the Village Voice, In These Times, and TCM.com. He is the author of seven books, including the novels Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.