Was Cain Able?


by Roy Hoopes
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 684 pp., $25.00

James M. Cain
James M. Cain; drawing by David Levine

During the decade before World War II, James M. Cain wrote some short, hard novels that caused a stir, becoming best-sellers and generating a critical buzz that darkened the space between art and obscenity. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, and Mildred Pierce have stayed in print to this day, and enough contradictory claims are still being made about them to assure them a lasting place in American literature, although just where that place might be remains uncertain.

They represent a certain kind of native American expressionism, in which lurid elements familiar from pulp fiction are recast by a transcendent starkness, and in which literary embellishment is eschewed, with the result that they seem all the more metaphoric. It is no accident that movies based on three of them helped to define the genre known as film noir, in which the Ufa vocabulary of cinematic expressionism was employed to elevate the B-movie into tragedy; or that Camus used Postman as his model for L’Etranger.

These four works constitute a mere detail of Cain’s career, falling within a seven-year stretch halfway through an eighty-five-year lifespan, of which he spent sixty years as an active writer, and in which he wrote eighteen books and numerous shorter works. As the remainder of his fiction approaches and then actually becomes pulp, his successes may seem fortuitous. Cain left little in the way of reflection. His letters and memoirs, quoted extensively by Roy Hoopes in his biography, appear to be devoted almost entirely to anecdote and surface detail. There are no literary essays, apart from some book reviews that seem cut from the blunt mold of his novels, and he discussed his own writing like a contractor, in formal or financial terms.

Cain’s obsessive concern with the authorial voice would suggest that all of this was the result of evasion rather than of an inherent triviality. All but three of his books are written in the first person, and the voice is consistent throughout his career: monosyllabic, unschooled, but eloquent when backed into a corner and forced to sing. Yet Cain’s background—genteel, academic, and more evocative of Booth Tarkington than of Jack London—belies this, and the rootlessness he shared with the drifters, miners, and salesmen of his novels was more the result of temperament than of socioeconomic decree. Needless to say, disparities between facts of life and settings of books hardly constitute evidence of slumming or hypocrisy. It is Cain himself who worried about the implied contradictions. “If I try to do it in my own language I find that I have none,” he complained very early, and the discomfort persisted until the end of his life. For him, writing of any sort involved adopting a guise, preferably a few rungs down the ladder of class. This reveals itself as a handicap, rather than a strategy, whenever the writing steps outside a…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.