James M. Cain exhibits at Pratt recalls his impact on American literature and culture

August 16, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

James M. Cain wrote two great novels, a few good ones, several mediocre ones and a couple that have, for good reason, sunk deep into the abyss of American fiction. His writing was uneven, obviously; the man who wrote the seminal and glorious first novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" also was given to repeating cliched story lines and themes in his later work, chiefly "Rainbow's End" and "The Magician's Wife." Although he continued to write diligently, for the last three decades of his life, until his death at age 85 in University Park on Oct. 25, 1977, he wrote little that was distinguished.

In one sense, it's a respectable yet hardly remarkable literary output for this college president's son and longtime resident of Maryland (save for much of the 1930s and '40s, when he was in California). Cain, a successful newspaper and magazine journalist before moving on to fiction, became a wildly popular novelist who gained extravagant critical praise as well (with a few noteworthy dissenters who felt he was a "trash novelist"). But really, there have been many writers with a track record that reads a few successes, some duds and the rest falling somewhere in the middle.

Still, in another sense, he became much more. James M. Cain was one of those rare artists whose best work was not only remembered, but also imitated and reworked constantly by others throughout the years.

On the 100th anniversary of Cain's birth (he was born in Annapolis on July 1, 1892), his contribution to American literature and culture is emphasized in an exhibition, "Poet of the Tabloid Murders," on display until Oct. 31 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. As exhibitions go, it's a modest one: one of his old Underwood typewriters, a few photographs and letters, some posters and first printings of his most popular novels ("Postman," "Double Indemnity," "Serenade" and "Mildred Pierce" being his best). Cain, who wrote simple and unvarnished prose that reflected his days as a newspaperman with The Sun in the early 1920s, probably would have approved of this low-key approach.

Powerful writing

Unlike an exhibition about, say, a painter or sculptor, there's understandably little on display that shows the viewer the full power of Cain's words -- that Cain was, as Tom Wolfe once noted, "in a class with [Raymond] Chandler when it comes to recreating the atmosphere of Stucco Rococo, Lay-Away Plan, and Low-Rent California." You can attend a Monet exhibition and get a strong sense of his talents as a painter; for Cain, it's necessary to go to his books. There you get writing at its most powerful, the best examples of what writing teachers always preach: Show rather than tell.

You start at the beginning -- literally, with the first sentence of his monstrous first novel, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which came out in 1934, when he was 42:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

What an extraordinary first line! - an extraordinary first paragraph. In the space of six sentences we learn that our protagonist, Frank Chambers, is a transient, a wise-guy ne'er-do-well who lives for the moment (hitching a ride on a truck after a prolonged debauchery in Tiajuana). It's no surprise when we learn he's up to no good; in fact, he seems destined to hook up with the treacherous Cora. Their initial encounter, for Cain, is love at first sight:

Except for the shape, she really wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Three things stand out in "Postman." First, it is surprisingly short ` 117 pages in the 1989 Vintage Crime paperback that I possess. Second, it keeps the pace going at an unrelenting speed; "Postman" and his other masterpiece, "Double Indemnity," are among the rare books that swallow the reader up on the first page, and the fascination continues to the final page. Finally, and most extraordinary, the reader simply cannot help but be drawn to the often repellent characters of Frank and Cora. This from Mr. Wolfe: "In book after book Cain puts you inside the skin of one utterly egocentric heel after another, losers who will stop at nothing - and makes you care about them. Sympathy runs along shank to flank with the horror and disgust."

Impact on novels and movies

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