Raising Cain to higher levels of recognition

March 03, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

It was a mere 159 pages, this book called "Bar-B-Q," and even its author had only modest hopes when he sent it off to the publisher.

He told his wife: "More than 500 novels come out every year in this country, and not many attract attention. If I sell a couple of thousand copies, get my name in the papers, and pick up a little money, we'll all be to the good and I'll try to think of another one."

Not even his old employer, The Sun, could work up much enthusiasm. In February 1934, it ran a small photograph of the 41-year-old writer, noting simply his first novel would be out soon.

So, with little fanfare, "Bar-B-Q" burst on the scene 60 years ago this winter, with one significant change: It was now called "The Postman Always Rings Twice." And its author, James M. Cain, woke up famous.

It is difficult today to appreciate the phenomenal success of "Postman." But, as Roy Hoopes noted in his 1982 biography of Cain, "Postman" was a best seller and critically acclaimed. In searching for a comparable debut today, Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent" comes closest, but even this fine novel failed to generate the excitement of "Postman." ("Presumed Innocent" made millions, however. In 1934, Cain was thrilled with the $25,000 MGM paid for the movie rights.)

"It was really one of the first books that had the movie contract, stage play, best-seller status and also had literary acclaim," Mr. Hoopes said in a telephone interview from his Washington office. "It was quite rare then. In the book, I used the term grand slam."

Franklin P. Adams, an influential critic for the New York Herald Tribune, called it the "unlaydownable" novel and declared Cain had broken free, stylistically, from mentor H. L. Mencken. Other raves followed; even those who panned the book had a grudging respect for this violently original work.

Public interest was equally keen, in part because of the book's salacious reputation. The Enoch Pratt Free Library had a waiting list and could not order enough copies to meet demand. But Washington College in Chestertown, Cain's alma mater, thought the book was too hot to put on its shelves.

For those who have managed to avoid "Postman" in its written or cinematic forms, it is the nasty little tale of two scheming soul mates: Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who conspire to murder Cora's husband and make it look like an accident.

It begins with what has been called one of the great opening lines in American fiction -- "They threw me off the hay truck at noon" -- and ends 35,000 words later with a death house monologue that the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, thought "soppy."

In between are dozens of memorable lines and vivid scenes. There's Frank's first sight of the voluptuous Cora: "[H]er lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her." Within a few pages, he does just that, biting her mouth until he draws blood.

But the most famous passage may be what is called the "Rip me" scene -- the torrid love-making that follows the murder, when Cora demands Frank tear the clothes from her body.

To quote one of its milder passages: "Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other's eyes, and locked in each other's arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn't have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it.

"I had her."

How this influenced "The Stranger" is not clear, but it is part of the folklore of "Postman" that Albert Camus patterned his novel on it -- which is only one of many ways Cain's work affected the literary world.

Mr. Hoopes said Cain's style is taught today in college writing courses. And with his spare style and pitch-perfect dialogue, Walter Mosley is one of the current contenders to be Cain's literary heir.

But Cain's work most often is compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, sometimes to Hemingway's detriment. Tom Wolfe, in the 1969 introduction for "Cain X 3" ("Postman," "Double Indemnity," and "Mildred Pierce" in one volume), said neither Hemingway nor Raymond Chandler could match Cain when it came to pacing a book.

"Picking up a Cain novel was like climbing into a car with one of those Superstockers who is up to 40 by the time your right leg is tTC in the door," wrote Mr. Wolfe, not exactly a slouch when it comes to acceleration.

Mystery writer Nancy Pickard, whose wry "Jenny Cain" series bears little resemblance to Cain's dark novels, still credits him as an important influence. Her subconscious even guided her to a sly acknowledgment: Jenny's father has his name, down to the middle initial, a coincidence Ms. Pickard hadn't noticed until a reporter pointed it out.

Reached at her Kansas home, she said of "Postman": "It's incredible. From the very first sentence, you cannot put it down. There's so much power in what he had to write, a real voice at work in his fiction, a voice that's not going to mince any words. . . . He's in a class by himself."

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