Somewhere, and it’s not in this new Everyman’s Library edition, James M. Cain betrayed a state secret when he said that “a writer can only write two hours a day.” The truth in this observation more than makes up for a small perjury in his introduction to his novel The Butterfly: “Except personally, with many engaged in it, I am not particularly close to the picture business, and have not been particularly successful in it. True, several of my stories have made legendary successes when adapted for films…. I have learned a great deal from pictures, mainly technical things. Yet in the four years or more that I have actually spent on picture lots, I have accumulated but three fractional credits.” With his little shrug of “or more,” as though it might be five, five and a half years, Cain hides, I think from himself, the fifteen years since leaving The New Yorker as managing editor and moving to Los Angeles under contract with Paramount. By the time he left Hollywood in 1947, those three fractional credits were Algiers, Stand Up and Fight and Gypsy Wildcat. But Hollywood was his day job, and in the same time he wrote his greatest books, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, all in this collection, along with five stories exhumed from dead magazines. It took Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder to adapt Double Indemnity, almost as faithful a job of typing as John Huston’s script for The Maltese Falcon. It took Faulkner to adapt Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and the only writer who should or could have adapted the Faulkner best suited for film, The Wild Palms, was Cain.
It’s a shame that this really wonderful introduction isn’t included in this collection, because Cain knew how good he was, and says so:
I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics…. Schools don’t help the novelist but they do the critic; using as mucilage the simplifications that the school hypothesis affords him, he can paste labels wherever convenience is served by pasting labels, and although I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammet in my whole life, Mr. Clifton Fadiman can refer to my hammet-and-tongs style and make things easy for himself.
Answering what he takes as an irrelevant comparison, he says:
I know no debt, beyond the pleasure his books have given me, to Mr. Ernest Hemingway…. I grant, of course, that even such resemblances between Mr. Hemingway and myself do make for a certain leanness in each of us…and might be taken, by those accustomed to thinking in terms of schools, as evidence that I had in some part walked in his footsteps. Unfortunately for this theory, however, although I didn’t write my first novel until 1933, when he was ten years on his way as a novelist, I am actually six years and twenty-one days older than he is, and had done a mountain of writing, in newspapers and magazines, including dialogue sketches, short stories, and one performed play, before he appeared on the scene at all.
I hadn’t read James M. Cain in more than twenty years and wasn’t sure I wanted to, if it meant finding the crumbs in his beard. When I read Chandler now I want to take his arm from around my shoulders, squeezing me at every metaphor. The thousand tough-guy books written by his imitators, in devotion, have softened the punch of his language, and I already know the stories. Reading Cain again, I am surprised not that he holds up but that seventy years later, his prickly defensiveness seems like modesty. He’s one of the great writers.
That first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), the story of a short-order cook dragged into murder, and Double Indemnity (1936) are simple stories with the same pattern: first-person confessions written a few feet from the grave by the most ordinary men. A woman gets her lover to kill her husband, in a scheme doomed to failure, but no one has the will to change their fate. “I think my stories,” wrote Cain, “have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex…that gives them the drive so often noted…. The reader is carried along by his own realization that the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive.”
In Double Indemnity, Walter Huff, a confident insurance salesman, calls on a home during the day to get a customer to revise his life insurance. He’s not home but his wife is. They flirt, he comes back, the man is still not home, the wife asks him, “Mr. Huff, would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all?” He “couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business.” He knows she means murder, and then he fucks her, knowing exactly what will happen; kills the husband in a stupid contrivance of suicide; and just as he expected, it’s not the police but his supervisor who solves the crime, which is no small twist: This is the heart of Cain’s theology. In Double Indemnity, Cain refutes Einstein. God does play dice, and he knows when the dice are loaded.
The secret of the book was teased open by the title, which is more than an ironic rotation of a melodious legal term. If the world of Double Indemnity is under the rule of the law, it is law as a manic anticipation of action, in a universe where the possibility for action is determined by probability and any action not anticipated by probability is by definition criminal. Cain doesn’t find the plot for crime in psychology, but in an actuarial table with the scope of Adam naming everything in Eden. As Huff’s supervisor puts it:
Here’s suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by locality, by seasons of the year, by time of day when committed. Here’s suicide by method of accomplishment. Here’s method of accomplishment subdivided by poisons, by firearms, by gas, by drowning, by leaps…. and here…are leaps subdivided by leaps from high places, under wheels of moving trains, under wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But there’s not one case here out of all these millions of cases of a leap from the rear end of a moving train. That’s just one way they don’t do it.
It takes nothing away from Postman and Double Indemnity to put them on the crime shelf, the honestly arranged shelf that would also include Dostoyevsky and Highsmith. Like Cain, Patricia Highsmith wasn’t insulted by the genre labels. She was proud enough to write the useful and friendly book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. But if we arrange by genre and not by alphabet, Mildred Pierce doesn’t belong there. It’s as good a novel as Daniel Deronda and Anna Karenina.
Early in the Depression, late in Prohibition, a middle-class Glendale mother of two girls leaves her husband. She makes a few dollars baking cakes and pies for neighbors, but it’s not enough. Offices aren’t hiring typists, stores aren’t hiring salesgirls, so she gets a job as a waitress, hiding her uniform from her children, especially her favorite, Veda, a talented pianist and snob. The reflexive critical opinion of Mildred is that all her work and sacrifice are for Veda, but this follows the movie, not the novel. She works and grows because she likes it, because she sees opportunity, because she’s good at what she does, because she loves her success for itself. Mildred sells her pies to the restaurant and then opens her own, hiring friends as staff. She falls in love with a Pasadena playboy living off a dwindling family fortune, even though “she had a growing suspicion that to him she was a servant girl, an amusing servant girl, one with pretty legs and a flattering response in bed.” She opens two more restaurants, and without becoming wealthy, has all the money she needs for herself, a good piano and Veda’s music. Veda fails as a pianist. “Can’t you understand anything at all?” she says. “They don’t pay off on work, they pay off on talent! I’m just no good! I’M NO GOD-DAMN GOOD AND THERE’S NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT!” Veda is wrong: She’s just not a pianist, she’s a singer, and not just a singer, but cursed with the gifts of a great coloratura. Mr. Treviso, the music teacher, as sure of genius and the life of artists as Klesmer in Daniel Deronda, tells Mildred:
Madame, is a special fancy breed, like blue Persian cat. Come once in a lifetime…. And dees girl, is a coloratura, even a bones is coloratura…. All a coloratura crazy for rich pipple, all take no give, all act like a duchess, all twiddle a la valiere…all borrow ten t’ousand bucks, go to Italy, study voice, never pay back a money, tink was all friendship. Sing in grand opera, marry a banker, get da money. Got da money, kick out a banker, marry a baron, get da title. ‘Ave a sweetie on a side, guy she like to sleep wit’. Den all travel together, all over Europe, grand opera to grand opera, ‘otel–a baron, ‘e travel in Compartment C, take care of dog. A banker, ‘e travel in Compartment B, take care of luggage. A sweetie, ‘e travel in Drawing Room A, take care of coloratura–all one big ‘appy family.
The playboy sponges off of Mildred as his fortune collapses, Mildred supports him, Veda goes national, and after that even more things happen, which you can read in the book.
The “technical things” Cain learned from the movies showed him how to compress into 300 pages everything we love in the nineteenth-century novel: the sense of time passed, of fluctuating social classes in a specific moment in a country’s history; shifting love stories; the rendering of a few lives into all lives, so that even the worst that people do is written from a distance, under the influence of divine attributes of mercy with enough perspective to see this as if from a long time later, as something so old and so often repeated that with all the shock there has to be laughter, without mockery.
Here, the opening lines of the book, a description of Mildred’s husband, Bert:
In the spring of 1931, on a lawn in Glendale, California, a man was bracing trees. It was a tedious job, for he had first to prune dead twigs, then wrap canvas buffers around weak branches, then wind rope slings over the buffers and tie them to the trunks, to hold the weight of the avocados that would ripen in the fall.
Tedious is the key word in the line, because even though Mildred leaves Bert for good reasons–doesn’t make money, has a floozy–Cain slides a barely visible respect into our first impression of him. Whatever else is wrong with Bert, Cain never loses respect for him, because he works hard, and of the three great subjects of the novel–work, marriage and family–work comes first.
When we first meet Mildred, after Bert gets off the ladder and takes a bath, she’s working too, icing a four-layer cake that she’s selling for $3. They soon fight about Bert’s girlfriend. Mildred
had little to say about love, fidelity, or morals. She talked about money, and his failure to find work; and when she mentioned the lady of his choice, it was not as a siren who had stolen his love, but as the cause of the shiftlessness that had lately come over him…. They spoke quickly, as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit. Indeed, the whole scene had an ancient, almost classical ugliness to it, for they uttered the same recriminations that have been uttered since the beginning of marriage, and added little of originality to them, and nothing of beauty.
So there’s the challenge Cain gives himself, to tell a story that he knows is tired, and to give it beauty. “Classical ugliness” could be a weak, too clever, formulation, something empty that sounds like it means something, but Cain means it in the way that Electra is an ugly play, that Greek tragedy is harsh. The novel is harsh. Veda is one of literature’s monsters, but as the victim of her own voice, she is both awful and not responsible. The agony for everyone, even Veda, is her voice, ruin and salvation. Cain gives Veda’s voice the same power as the Depression, moving the world around them all. In the three novels and the short stories, Cain’s Depression is an endless flood that might have been written by J.G. Ballard, larger than any one place; the whole country is on planet Depression, which flattens the world. The Depression traps everyone, puts them to a test they don’t have to look for, and when they fail that test, Cain doesn’t blame them. So it is with the coloratura.
Were she only an opera singer, like Madame Modjeska in Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, an angel from the higher realms, the book would collapse into kitsch, but this is a book about a bakery, after all, so Veda achieves fame and money singing on the radio for Sunbake vitamin bread. Out of this absurd incongruity comes the final scene between Mildred and Bert, and in the resolution of their quarrel Cain restores beauty.
Cain likes sex and he knows that everyone fucks, and knows that the reader in the 1930s knew that everyone fucked and not to pretend that sex is news or that sex is something that happens as it does in books; the earth never moves. “So, with the door tightly locked, the shades pulled down, and the keyhole stuffed up, they resumed their romance, there in the den. Romance, perhaps, wasn’t quite the word, for of that emotion she felt not the slightest flicker. Whatever it was, it afforded two hours of relief, of forgetfulness.” Or: “She spanked him on his lean rump, hustled him out of bed, and jumped out after him.”
And has anyone ever written more casually about Los Angeles? Has a novelist frustrated by the studios ever cared less about getting even with the place, to pit his too-sensitive soul against Moloch, and make his novel a message in a bottle sent from Hell? Mildred Pierce is a message sent from Glendale, and Glendale stands for nothing more than any suburban town anywhere in the country, and he gives it no symbolic meaning. If anything, he admires the town that offers struggling people like Mildred and her crew in the restaurants a chance to work for themselves.
Cain’s picture of Southern California is as neutral as photographs of old Hollywood; only by comparison with the way it looks today does an empty beanfield tell us something. The beanfield in Mildred Pierce is the two and a half hours it takes to drive from Glendale to Lake Arrowhead, which in those days meant the main road to San Bernardino, turning left and driving up thirty or so miles of narrow mountain road. This is faster than I can get there now, unless I leave at 7 in the morning on a Sunday, faster by an hour if I leave during Friday rush hour. An evening’s spontaneous drive from Glendale to Laguna, for dinner, now belongs in the same book of travel wonders as a six-month trip around Cape Horn.
Cain’s fans will miss Serenade, the only book in the genre of opera singers on the lam in Mexico, but it’s not hard to find. Robert Polito’s biographical and critical introduction is a model of appreciation, with which I have one quarrel. Assessing the decline of Cain’s work, Polito writes, “Serious artists overtaken by the popularity they sought–Welles, Warhol, Brando, Dylan–sometimes lose their way. Cain was not one who found his way back.” Is it an American demand that you’re only as good as your next picture? He’s asking Cain to be a success like Veda Pierce, always moving to the higher level, but Cain stays with Mildred at the end, leaving Veda, awful but without punishment, to her golden future, in as close an opinion on his time in show business and Hollywood as Cain will venture. So there are sure to be some readers who take the last lines of the book as Mildred’s way of throwing herself under the train, but I think we can leave Mildred with as much triumph as Cain believes possible, the main work, but not the life, completed. Give him the same respect. He left Hollywood, moved to Maryland, and kept at his two hours a day. If ours is not the last generation of posterity, if the era to come has any memory, time may yet bring his later writing into focus, but if not, we don’t need and shouldn’t ask for any more from James M. Cain than the books in this collection.