I have a good friend, one of the most literate magazine editors in the country, who tells the story of when he was a high school senior taking a college-entrance test and part of the exam was to write an essay about any great work of American literature. Afterward, when his English-teacher mother asked which novel he chose as the subject of his exegesis, he answered James M. Cain's Mildred Pierceˇand the blood ran from her face. "You just failed," she intoned. Of course she was correct, he did fail: He had chosen the wrong Cain. Serenade, Cain's berserk third novel published in 1937ˇnow there would have been a subject worthy of prolonged discussion. It wouldn't have gotten my friend any closer to college than did Mildred Pierce, but at least it would have suitably mortified academia and the mavens of "taste," and there would have been some glory in the long fiery plummet to earth of his college future.
That's the view of someone who prefers Tender Is the Night to The Great Gatsby, and for much the same reasonˇnot despite the fact that it's a bit of a mess but because of itˇso you have to take my opinion for the critical perversion it is. But then how else to take Cain if not perversely? Cain is a major figure in American fiction's Parallel Pantheon, the one that includes not the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Updike but rather Bowles, Burroughs, Jim Thompson, and Philip K. Dick, with Faulkner and Pynchon and Henry Miller wandering the demilitarized zone in between. In this company, Cain is distinguished by the paradox of having been at once the most commercial and the most spiritually bleak, although as to the latter, Thompson could certainly give him a run for his money. After myriad careers in meatpacking, sales, and journalism, Cain came to success both late and quick, in his forties with his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, followed by Double Indemnity. Published in 1934 and 1936, respectively, these were products of the Great Depression at its most hopeless, with the political depravities of Nazism and Stalinism at hand, and seventy years later they remain masterpieces of a romantic nihilism that spoke to America's shadow soul. If, clinging to their idealism, American readers professed to exalt The Grapes of Wrath with its dust-bowl Abel in all his Edenic heroism, it was Cain they really believed in.
The disenfranchised of Postman, which early on Cain called Bar-B-Que, isn't Tom Joad but a drifter named Frank Chambers. When he meets Cora, working in a roadside gas station and eatery, it doesn't take long for the two of them to dispense with the niceties of human behavior and get down to fucking like beasts. "Her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her" is Frank's lively first impression. It's not that what they feel isn't love; to the contrary, from their standpoint it's the only love that makes sense, a love so incandescent and unspeakable that once it exhausts the language of fucking, all that's left is the language of murder. Frank and Cora will try and fuck their way to safety and freedom, dispensing with her immigrant husband in the process, then meet somewhere in the middle where all that's left is to dispense with each other in an erotic frenzy. "Rip me! Rip me!" Cora cries to Frank just feet from the corpse, after Frank begins "to fool with her blouse, to bust the buttons. . . . She was looking at me, and her eyes didn't look blue, they looked black. . . . I ripped her. I shoved my hand in her blouse and jerked. She was wide open, from her throat to her belly."
By Double Indemnity two years later, nothing had changed much except the protagonists' slight elevation in social status. Walter sells insurance, as Cain himself once didˇthat would have made anyone a prominent citizen in those times, when one in three men was out of work and the "security" that insurance companies sold was at a premium, if also an illusionˇand Phyllis is the bored wife of an oilman who would bore any red-blooded American woman silly. The scene has shifted as well, from the dusty nomadic roads of rural California to Los Angeles, at that time almost beginning to resemble a real city. By then, Cain himself was in LA. Born in Annapolis to Irish parents in 1892, the son of a college teacher, and raised in the serene, dappled hush of the academia that later would dismiss his legacy, he repudiated his Catholicism at the age of twelve and spent his youth in and around New York. For half a year as an editor he wandered that literary night of the living dead called the New Yorker, barely escaping with the cultural zombies on his heels. Nevertheless, as it would be to anyone bred on the East Coast, LA was alienating. Perhaps even Cain wasn't aware of how this alienation honed his self-loathing into an aesthetic. Writing scripts in Hollywood along with Fitzgerald and, later, Faulkner, he bought his freedom with his success as a novelist when it was supposed to be the other way around, and therefore wisely spared himself the task of adapting Indemnity to the movies in 1944, leaving it to Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. At that point Chandler's own debut, The Big Sleep, was causing some controversy with its various subplots concerning pornography and nymphomania. Chandler was offended by Cain. Compared with Frank Chambers and Walter Huff, Philip Marlowe was Tom Sawyer. "Everything [Cain] touches," fumed Chandler, "smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest . . . a Proust in greasy overalls . . . the offal of literature."
For his part, Cain was offended by the movies, maybe even including the ones he cowrote, the best known of which was the 1938 Hedy Lamarr picture Algiers. "There [is] no such thing as a good one," he's quoted by poet Robert Polito in the introduction to the new Everyman's edition of Cain's work. Of course, the movie Double Indemnity was Hollywood's answer to Cain. If the moral conventions of the time wouldn't allow John Garfield and Lana Turner (or Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange more than three decades later) to truly inhabit Postman's Frank and Cora, somehow censors were no obstacle to Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, a golden dominatrix lashing Fred MacMurray in the service of her homicidal machinations. For that matter, the casting of shlub MacMurray over other candidates like tough guy George Raft and Alan Ladd, who had just made his mark as a psychopathic killer in This Gun for Hire, was its own brilliantly counterintuitive coup. Double Indemnity was as dark a piece of mainstream entertainment as Hollywood had made to that point, at a rare historical momentˇthe last years of World War IIˇwhen good and evil truly were as clear-cut as our current political leaders would like us to believe they are now. Even Cain was impressed. "The only picture I ever saw made from my books," he confessed, "that had things in it I wish I had thought of."
It's just as well he didn't. One of the things Cain preferred was the film's more conventional endingˇa neater and more banal resolution (particularly after losing a scene with MacMurray dying in the gas chamber) that worked well enough in movie terms but was also Wilder's single greatest betrayal of the novel. Like Frank and Cora before them, in the novel Walter and Phyllis get away with murder only to sail off on an endless cruise as flying dutchmen of the libido, escaping everything but their own rot, an avenging shark always sailing alongside, offering its silent promise of a rapturous devourment. "The moon." is the novel's entire last sentence and paragraph, everything that's happened before emptying into it.
To be sure, Cain's most famous and characteristic work was of a piece with the tough, naturalistic writing of Hemingway, Hammett, and early John O'Hara. But Double Indemnity's final pages also occupied a locus with then-current novels like Light in August and Tropic of Cancer, and if on the face of them these three couldn't be more different, all shared a primal and dreamlike power. Out of their hallucinatory lyricism was born a fiction of delirium that (as Polito himself notes) American literature hadn't seen since Poe or the last quarter of Moby-Dick. "The time has come," Phyllis tells Walter at the end of Indemnity, their ghost vessel cutting through the black water. "For me to meet my bridegroom. The only one I ever loved. One night I'll drop off the stern of the ship. Then, little by little I'll feel his icy fingers creeping into my heart." Walter notes that she "looks like what came aboard the ship to shoot dice for souls in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Later this American fiction of delirium would include the strange, dislocated hejiras of Bowles's short stories and The Sheltering Sky, Burroughs's Nova Express and Cities of the Red Night, Thompson's Savage Night and The Getaway, Dick's Valis and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It would also include Cain's next novel, Serenade, the story of a washed-up opera singer and his American Indian prostitute lover thatˇfrom Mexican whorehouses to Manhattan penthouses and backˇroils with not only sexual and racial secrets but the toxic frustrations of what Cain considered his own thwarted higher calling, which was to be a singer himself. While not as famous as the novels in the new Everyman's edition, Serenade raised the lurid to something verging on tabloid-phantasmagoric and represented a kind of apotheosis of what Cain, almost unknowingly, had begun in the two books before.
Not accidentally, this was work that the established canon never had the nerve or imagination to really comprehend, even as in Europe (where he was a revelation for novelists like Camus and filmmakers like Visconti) the pantheon Cain belongs to is parallel to none. Also not accidentally, except for Burroughs, none of the Parallel Pantheon wrote in any kind of proximity to New York; rather its books were made in some far-flung refuge, from the West Coast to North Africa, from the Place de Clichy to Yoknapatawpha County. In their novels all these exiles on Main Street tested the caprices and artificialities of civilized behavior as surely as Frank and Cora laid carnal siege to it, and in Cain's day, LAˇteetering as ever on the edge between the transcendent and tawdry, teeming with the socially forsaken, the creatively disenchanted, the cosmically besotted, and fugitives from Hitler's coming Holocaustˇwas in some ways a center. Of course, those who lived in it didn't any more feel they were the center of something than those who live there now. Even then entropy, not gravity, was the psychic law at work, and notwithstanding the conceit of urban identity that came with its mind-boggling expansion over the years, nothing about LA would essentially change. In Cain's novels in particular the most fundamental bonds of civilization, marital ones, were ravaged first, followed by familial ones, as Cain moved on from wives and lovers to mothers and daughters in Mildred Pierce in 1941 and then, in 1946's The Butterfly, to daughters and fathers, whose relationships far too closely resembled Frank and Cora's or Walter and Phyllis's.
By then, Cain just made people damned uncomfortable. Having the same aspirations and pretensions of any novelist who's worth anything, he vacillated between restless audacity and the more deliberately considered approach that he hoped would raise him above the hard-boiled school to which critics consigned him. More than eighty pages longer than Postman and Indemnity combined, the opening passage of Mildred's husband raking leaves takes as long as it does for Frank and Cora to meet, have lunch, argue about her ethnicity, and realize sex is just a matter of time. In Mildred Pierce, Cain confronts head-on the bleak economics of the '30s and '40s that simmer under the surface of his other books, with the heroine having thrown her husband out of the house before finding herself faced with the responsibility of feeding her children; the gauntlet of humiliation Mildred must run just to get a job waiting tables is as brilliantly observed as it is wrenching. The head of an employment agency finally spells it out for her. Pulling out drawers filled with application cards, she says, "I told you you're not qualified. O.K., you can take a look here and see what I mean. These three drawers are employers, people that call me when they want somebody. . . . They call me because I'm on the level with them and save them the trouble of talking to nitwits like you. . . . People are sold over this desk just like cattle in the Chicago yards."
That said, Mildred herself spends a good two hundred pages struggling to become an interesting character. She certainly doesn't suggest for a moment Joan Crawford, who played her in the movie. That she's uninteresting is Cain's intention; she's an "ordinary" hero in the same way his monsters are "ordinary," and Cain never had as much feel for heroes as he did for the Medusas who pose in every doorway and descend every staircase (he was married four times, with any number of affairs during and between them). The most skin-crawling is Mildred's daughter Veda, for whom the struggling single mother sacrifices so much and on whose vanity and social ambition are finally impaled survival, maternity, love itself.
If I have a complaint about the new Everyman's Cain, it's that Mildred Pierce has displaced Serenade. Significantly, Serenade was also the continuation of the first-person voice of Postman and Indemnity that Mildred Pierce abandoned, and any writer knows that, for all its seductiveness, a first-person voice that's at once indelible and convincing is much harder than the third person; and as Polito notes at the outset of his introduction, when it comes to the first person, any writer who's read Cain knows he was a master. In its mesmerizing, artless perfection, the first sentence of Postman, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," has become a grail for writers. In comparison, by the time Jake and Brett and the rest of the gang get to Spain, Hemingway's universally adored first-person voice grows tedious and unwittingly self-satirizing. (Anyway, it was a comparison that irritated Cain: "I owe no debt," he insisted defensively in 1947, ". . . to Mr. Ernest Hemingway, though if I did I think I should admit it, as I have admitted various other debts.") In the third person Cain loses his juice; he becomes only another expert writer, and this is especially clear in the new volume's short stories, which include "Pastorale," the first piece of fiction Cain ever published. For the most part these were little laboratories for the novels, where the voice of "Joy Ride to Glory" would meet the sensibility of "The Girl in the Storm," in which a girl named Dora and called Flora would morph into Cora, and Frank Chambers traveled under the name Jack. Under any name, Frank/Jack never learns. Stabbed in the back either metaphorically or literallyˇit's not clear whichˇby the woman he rescues from a deluge, he stumbles back out into the rain, probably in search of that hay truck to fall off. Like lots of writers, Cain could never see his own genius for the more trivial failings: Determined to master the third- person voice that just didn't come naturally to him, he agonized to a biographer, "I cannot write in the third person. . . . To write anything, I have to pretend to be somebody else."
Well, not precisely. Because clearly the real Cainˇor at least the novelist Cainˇwas more the Cain who pretended to be Frank or Walter or Serenade's John Sharp than the Cain who pretended to be only Cain, omnisciently whispering in Mildred's ear about pie baking and her daughter's sluttish ways. In that Elba of Entropy called LA, what could have been more natural? There Cain was, more a citizen of the place than he knew, wasting time bitterly resenting how an "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" third person, the voice of High Literature and the civilized East Coast, where he was less at home than he thought, eluded him, while slithering up through the cracks of who he really was came that hiss of genius named Frank and Walter and John. It wasn't so much that Cain belonged in LA. No one belongs in LA; the whole point of the place is that it's for people who don't belong anywhere. Cain left in the late '40s and regretted it, his fiction never regaining its traction, though it would be disingenuous to claim with any certainty the move was the reason. In any event, his work became more curious and less persuasive. One of his later novels, 1963's Mignon, was a Civil War epic, of all things. But then just the idea of Cain publishing a book less than a year before the Beatles seems utterly out of time, as is the fact that he died as late as 1977, the year of the Sex Pistols, whose manifesto of disgust Cain might have understood if he could have gotten around the fact they weren't opera singers. I don't know whether high school seniors still fail college-entrance exams on his account. But Parallel Pantheons aside, posterity hasn't quite given James M. Cain his full due; vast as his influence has become, the culture is likelier to know the Double Indemnity of Wilder than its author, and up until now he's been accorded the respectability of neither Hammett nor Chandler nor even Thompson, not to mention the hip cachet of neo-noirists like James Ellroy or George S. Pelacanos. This new edition makes a noble case for the master of them all, and for his blood-and-love-streaked vision of the American midnight.
Steve Erickson is the author of six novels and recently completed his seventh, Our Ecstatic Days. He also writes about film for Los Angeles magazine and is the editor of Black Clock, a literary journal to be published by the California Institute of the Arts beginning next year.