Some Thoughts About James M. Cain
In an article from the 23rd, the Christian Science Monitor‘s Randy Dotinga interviews Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai about the role of women in James M. Cain’s work, and The Cocktail Waitress, the unpublished Cain novel Ardai discovered in the papers of Cain’s agent. Hard Case Crime, recently relaunched in partnership with UK publisher Titan, will be publishing The Cocktail Waitress in Fall, 2012, says a Titan Books press release.
Now, the world of vintage noir fiction is a relatively small universe of complete obsessives; the fact that I’m completely flipping out over having a new Cain novel discovered seems like it should be more or less irrelevant to the mopes out there who aren’t all that sure if he’s the guy who wrote The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, or if maybe he’s the guy Humphrey Bogart played in the movie where he clicked two balls together.
But I’m off my nut, as usual. It turns out the discovery of an unpublished novel from the author of Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce warrants fandangos from the mainstream. There’s been coverage of The Cocktail Waitress everywhere: The Guardian, USA Today, Media Bistro, Publisher’s Weekly, and points further afield like The Violent World of Parker, which said “What would we do without Hard Case Crime? Wither away and die, I suspect. (It then embedded a YouTube video of Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce,” which pleased the cockles of my aging punk soul, spanking me back to a time when I drove up to Berkeley to see that estimable band, and discovered opening for them these guys from Seattle no one gave a fuck about.)
Oh and BTW, speaking of obsessives, here’s one of the Q’s from the CSM, and one of Ardai’s A’s:
Q: How are you figuring out which revisions to keep and which ones to take out?
A: There are some parts that are easier. For the rest, I’m going to be spending some time in the archive rooms at the Library of Congress going through correspondence, and I’ll go through all the primary source evidence I’ve got to determine what his intent would have been. I’ll be doing the work of a responsible editor to shape it into the best story it could be.
Oh, also, opening for the next Ardai novel:
Q: The book has multiple revisions of the ending. How will you figure out which one to keep?
A: There’s a good deal of variety, but the core events are the same in them. The last line does not change, nor should it.
…which is exactly the kind of teaser yours truly loses sleep over, obsessive as I am over Cain endings. Me, I’m not so good on what my psychiatrist likes to call the, like, the Delayed Gratification. I’d even venture so far as to suggest that Mr. Ardai might wish to reinforce the locks on the Hard Case offices, especially given the inspiration that could be drawn from a HCC novel I recently perused in my copious leisure time. That could be drawn, mind you. Could be. If one were, like, of criminal nature.
Ardai’s original email to the faithful says the acquisition was made “After more than 9 years of detective work and negotiation.” The great blog Pulp Serenade actually went so far as to track down and excerpt Cain’s comments about The Cocktail Waitress from a 1976 issue of Film Comment. The next day The Guardian quoted the same passage, proving either that information wants to be free or that, oh, maybe the world of vintage noir fiction is a relatively small universe of complete obsessives.
I’m on record as thinking that when it comes to writing, Cain is an absolute genius beyond all meaning of the word. He’s so damn good that the (in my opinion) not-quite-home-run Grand Guignol ending of Double Indemnity, the novel, doesn’t faze me one bit, especially since the brilliant novel’s dying lapse in brilliance was so beautifully remedied in the un-fucking-believably good screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.
This is one of the absolute best screenplays ever written, without question, and for various reasons one of the weirdest documents in literary or cinematic history. It was rendered in a feat of truly inspired screenwriting accomplished by two masters against all odds when they weren’t busy plotting to kill each other. As I wrote of the screenplay’s closing moments, “This is classic America, A-list noir, the soul of the nation laid open and bloody with a tire iron.”
By the way, did you know James M. Cain attacked Ernest Hemingway’s writing in print, in response to comparisons of him with Papa? I remember him being particularly nasty in a letter reprinted in an ancient reprint of an editorial I dug up at the UCSC library umpteen years ago. One of the reasons Cain hated Hemingway, as I recall? The H-man used too many four letter words. Hell’s bells, could Elmore fucking Leonard make this shit up?
The excitement over this acquisition just goes to prove a fact that I’ve been thinking about alot, lately, particularly since someone just spent forty-five minutes interrogating me about the use of the “rude” word “douchebag” in the opening lines of The Panama Laugh. It’s the “relatively small universes” of “complete obsessives” that determine WTF the “mainstream” mopes think, when they finally come around and stop trying to burn us at the stake.
What I mean to say is that the people who determine the future direction of culture and thought are not in fact the Walter Huffs, who can be driven to murder by the promise of plenty cheddar and the love of a dame with an ankle bracelet.
No, the people who matter are the ones who are, to paraphrase Chandler, walk the mean streets but are not themselves mean.
The ones who build a better world — not one where misery doesn’t happen, but where it means something — aren’t the ones who think that cash and some dreamy fantasy of bullshit love will finally free them from the rot that grows from within.
The people I care about are the ones who walk the mean streets because they give a flying fuck what the hell that rot means…and what it means when the moon blazes bright overhead and then you and the chick with the anklet go and toss yourselves in. Or Edward G. Robinson fires up a match and lights a guy’s smoke and says, “You’re finished, Neff.”