Commentary Magazine

The Scarperer, by Brendan Behan

If You Don't Weaken

The Scarperer.
by Brendan Behan.
Doubleday, 158 pp. $3.95.

They took me to the cell, and beat me in the face, slaps but not punches. The punches they gave me in the ribs, in the kidneys, and once or twice they hit me across the face with a bunch of keys, but concentrated mostly on the guts and a few kicks in my arse, when they sent me sprawling across the room . . .

My face was not too bad, nothing noticeable, though my lip was cut on the inside where I got the blow of the bunch of keys, and I could feel the blood going down my throat and sickening me. I was also now being sickened, and a cold clammy sweat was coming out on my hands and on my forehead now in delayed action for the fright I hadn't had time to have when they were dragging me up the stairs and belting me in the cell. I wiped the sweat off, too, and then got a kind of sick bilious headache, and I wanted to have a s – – t, and so I did in quick time on the pot and wiped myself and had the cover on and was up and about again in no time, when the door opened and a prisoner and a screw stood in the doorway. They had a parcel of books, and the prisoner handed me two and wrote my name on a card.

In any event I should have a read, and a read every week, and a kind of pay-day to look forward to when they changed the books; and, thinking these thoughts, I had the cell, between bedclothes and all, laid out and tidied up, and I gave myself another rub with the cold fresh water and had a look at myself in the mirror and I looked all right, except my mouth was a bit bloody with a thin red line around the edge of it, but I wiped that off too and then let myself have a look at the books.

It's a queer world, God knows, but the best we have to be going on with.

This is from Borstal Boy, and I quote it at such length because it is a good example of the late Brendan Behan's sensibility. He presents the brutality and the subsequent fear but does not linger over them. As soon as he sees the books, he is all right again: “Better than a dozen of stout it was to see them there, the books.” His comment on the experience is his most personal comment on life. A queer world it is and a cruel one, but not as sick as a totally evil one. No one was freer than Behan from intellectual hatred and no one could hate more directly and spontaneously. And only Behan, I suppose, could have gotten away with writing, as recently as a few years ago, “Oh, my America, oh, my new-found land. The man that hates you hates the human race.”

I suppose any candid “History of Behan in America” would have to admit that his personality overshadowed his work. He was so well liked he was not taken with that high seriousness which, according to St. Matthew, is the essence of great art. One should not claim too much for Behan, but I think here in America we have mistaken his worth. His vision of evil was not fashionable and, despite his youthful revolutionary activities and writings, he was a man of neither the Right nor the Left, although, of course, if he was choosing he'd lead with the Left. “If I skint, I'd sooner be skint in the Bowery than in Westchester County. The Bowery is more civilized and the conversation is better.” That, of course, is not political, just common sense.

Behan wrote The Scarperer in 1953, the same period as The Quare Fellow, and it was serialized in the Irish Times under the pseudonym of Emmet Street. In an afterword, Rae Jeffs tells us that Behan wrote under a phony name because at the time he was not in the good graces of the Dublin intelligentsia who had seen some pieces of pornography that he'd written for French magazines—“in English, of course.”

The scarperer of the title is one who engineers jail breaks for pay. The particular jail break of this story, however, has a twist. The prisoner to be sprung, The Limey, has promised to pay as soon as he gets back to England. The Scarperer has another plan. He springs The Limey only to drown him off Dieppe; and he drowns him because he looks so much like a French criminal, Pierre le Fou, who, when The Limey's body is found, will be officially dead and therefore free. The plan works perfectly. The prisoners escape; The Limey is murdered; Pierre le Fou pays off handsomely—in counterfeit franc notes. This deception, however, is not discovered until both unlucky Pierre and The Scarperer are dead of bullet wounds, thanks to an elderly lady named Aunt Jeannie who had suspected The Scarperer and his mates of slaughtering horses, had called them murderers to their faces and been slapped for it. Far from rejoicing at having brought killers to justice, Aunt Jeannie is troubled—“It just happened that instead of preventing men's cruelty to dumb beasts, I was assisting at the mystery of their cruelty to each other.”

“Well, we all were put in the way of helping the police.”

“Let us go and eat and drink and we'll—”

“Forget it.”

Behan does not identify the speakers after Aunt Jeannie's remarks. The words are meant as the briefest of comments on what is bad and cannot be helped. And if we consider Behan's work, The Ouare Fellow, The Hostage, Borstal Boy and The Scarperer (I haven't read or seen The Big House), we notice that it all has to do with the mystery of men's cruelty to each other. Aunt Jeannie regrets having assisted at it; Behan has celebrated it, and while by celebrate I mean primarily the marking and memorializing of an occasion, I would not wish to avoid entirely the suggestion of joy. It is a defiant joy, a joy that recognizes cruelty as an inescapable condition of life as we know it and refuses, on that account, to cash in the chips.

Behan's vision of evil was not complex, but it had incisiveness and integrity. It lay behind his comedy, his dialogue—sinuous and slangy and singing—his good-natured bawdry, and it became his means of celebrating a world that is queer, by God, but the best we have.

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