Gil Brewer’s Sexual Obsession; or, Why You Should Read Noir Short Stories by David Rachels.

David Rachels, Noir, Non-fiction, Pulp, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

The halcyon days of Gil Brewer’s writing life were the late 1940s, before he had ever published a word. He had returned stateside after serving in the army in World War II, and he was living with his parents in St. Petersburg, Florida. For a time, Brewer’s parents supported him while he wrote and drank and used his novels-in-progress to woo a neighbor’s wife, whom he would soon marry. Brewer was writing literary novels with titles like House of the Potato and chasing his dream of being a Great Novelist. Then his mother threw him out of the house, and he had to earn a living.

In striving to make money as a writer, Brewer focused on what he saw as the lowest common denominator of the human condition: sex. He once explained to an interviewer his view that “sex . . . is the big element we deal with in life every day—the push and pull of human nature.” Of course, not everyone agrees with Brewer’s assessment of the centrality of sex. If we accept the judgment of Brewer’s first literary agent or his editors at Gold Medal Books or the members of the United States Court of Appeals First Circuit, then Brewer may have mistaken his own nature for human nature at large. But if we accept the judgment of the book-buying public, Brewer knew human nature all too well.

1951’s 13 French Street, the most popular novel that Brewer would ever write, sold more than a million copies, despite the fact (or because of the fact?) that its primary appeal was sexual. Brewer’s first literary agent, Joseph T. Shaw, thought that 13 French Street was composed entirely of “sex angles,” and he urged his client not to rely so much on themes of the flesh. In May 1952, soon after 13 French Street surpassed 600,000 copies sold, Shaw told Brewer to tone down the sex in the opening scene of his current novel-in-progress: “I hope you will manage, in the beginning, to build up some sympathetic feeling for the hero . . . Opening as it did, in the cabin with the other fellow and the promiscuous girls, one couldn’t think too highly of him.” Then, the following year, Gold Medal Books, publisher of 13 French Street, rejected Brewer’s manuscript Shadow on the Dust outright, because its plot depended “entirely on sex.”

Brewer must have felt frustrated and confused. Financial necessity had forced him to abandon his dreams of high literary accomplishment, but he had nevertheless laid claim to a theme that he felt was central to the human condition. Sales figures showed, unambiguously, that his handling of this theme had enthralled the reading public, yet both his agent and his publisher wanted him to stop it. Brewer, however, never stopped it, and, ironically, Gold Medal Books never stopped trying to milk the success of 13 French Street. In 1960, when Brewer published his last Gold Medal novel, Backwoods Teaser, the publisher was still billing him as “Gil Brewer, author of 13 French Street.

Today, Brewer’s reputation rests on the novels that he published in the decade following 13 French Street. (Most readers agree that 13 French Street has not aged very well.) Even if novels such as The Brat, The Vengeful Virgin, Nude on Thin Ice, A Taste for Sin, and Memory of Passion are sexually tame by today’s standards, Brewer’s insights into the psychology of sexual enthrallment and obsession still resonate. Remarkably, however, Brewer’s most wide-ranging explorations of sexual themes are almost completely unknown, as they appear in his short stories, which have just been collected for the first time. Furthermore, some of Brewer’s best short stories have, until now, been hidden behind pseudonyms that no one identified with him.

Brewer’s great stories of the 1950s—as well as many great stories by other writers—appeared in digest-sized magazines with names like Accused, Guilty, Pursuit, and Manhunt. These magazines did not aim for the same respectability as Gold Medal Books, and their writers had considerably more freedom as a result. As well, there is a natural shift in judgment when an editor is deciding whether to publish a short story as opposed to a novel: What might seem an unhealthy subject for detailed exploration over the course of 200 pages may be acceptable at one-twentieth that length. Or, to put it another way, whereas Manhunt was willing to publish a 4000-word Brewer story about a panty-snatcher, a Gold Medal novel with the same protagonist would have been unthinkable.

Manhunt’s editorial policies would ultimately land the magazine in considerable trouble, as its publisher and owner, Michael St. John, was charged with sending through the U.S. mail “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent matter”—namely, the April 1957 issue of Manhunt. The court found that the stories in this issue of the magazine “do not have even the slightest redeeming social significance or importance. Nor do they have any claim whatever to literary merit. In general, their dominant theme is illicit, often meretricious, sexual intercourse combined with a sub-theme of violent crime, usually homicide.” In sum, the magazine is “crude, course, vulgar, and on the whole disgusting.” Perhaps this is why Manhunt was the most popular of the mystery digests, and why they published several of Brewer’s best stories.

This is why you should read the stories that were published in Manhunt and its contemporaries: Not because more sex necessarily means better fiction but because more artistic freedom often does. As well, the short story form encouraged noir writers to experiment. Some of Brewer’s short stories do read like miniature Brewer novels, but in others he veers away from his usual formulas. The best of these are noir seen from angles not present in his novels: noir from the point of view of a black man, noir from the point of view of a child, noir with an O. Henry twist. Short stories make the world of noir (and the corpus of Gil Brewer) that much richer.

David Rachels is the editor of Redheads Die Quickly and Other Stories by Gil Brewer.

He blogs about noir fiction at Noirboiled Notes.