The Postman Always Rings Twice (Modern Library #98)

(This is the third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Ginger Man)

When I was a shy stripling new to San Francisco, there were three writers who showed me the way to manhood: James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and James M. Cain. Baldwin was angry for being the other, but with very good reason. Miller was playful (and often indignant) for being the other, but his “other” was narrow and individual. Not a cult of one, but not the kind of guy to easily integrate into a Western Union desk job. Hence, the writing life. Hence, poverty. Bless both gentlemen for their eccentricities. I’m not being hyperbolic when I state that I couldn’t have survived my early twenties without them. And bless the Modern Library for including both of these writers on its list. I look forward to revisiting them.

But I’m here to square things away with the third guy. James M. Cain may have been quieter than the first two, but he was just as interested in those primal emotions hidden beneath apparent equipoise. Cain’s rudderless drifters, often without funds, kept their knowledge and skills to themselves, perhaps because their talents weren’t nearly as great as they figured or, when brushing up against cold hard cash, they simply didn’t blend well. (See, for example, the Mexicali poolroom incident in The Postman Always Rings Twice.) Lacking any direct line to an indispensable quality, these heroes hoped to get by through decisiveness, no-bullshit assertiveness, and clever banter. It helped tremendously that Cain, who came from journalism, was a master of smooth muscular prose. You’d be hard-pressed to find an extraneous word in any of his hard-boiled sentences. (In Postman, “I had her” is the last sentence of the eighth chapter. And I’m guessing that’s likely to be the most succinct sentence I ever encounter in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.) But Cain’s great joke was that this resigned approach often led his heroes into murders, insurance scams, or lustful traps.

Was this punishment? I didn’t see any of this as a Puritanical racket. Still don’t from my more adult vantage point. No need to wear a scarlet A in the Cain universe. You’d get yours eventually if you didn’t appreciate your good fortune. And even if you managed to fool everybody most of the time, there was always someone out there who pulled a faster gun. And who knew how far up the chain it went?

“Chambers, I think this is the last murder you’ll have a hand in for some time, but if you ever try another, for God’s sake leave insurance companies out of it. They’ll spend five times as much as Los Angeles County will let me put on a case.”

Cain was pure opera. It’s there in Postman‘s elaborate explanation of the Pacific States Accident policy:

He told what it covered, how the Greek would get $25 a week for 52 weeks if he got sick, and the same if he got hurt in an accident so he couldn’t work, and how he would get $5,000 if he lost one limb, and $10,000 if he lost two limbs, and how his widow would get $10,000 if he was killed in an accident, and $20,000 if the accident was on a railroad train. When he got that far it began to sound like a sales talk, and the magistrate held up his hand.

In other words, the “sales talk,” the act of setting down the terms (or even outlining the way the world works), is in and of itself an operatic gesture. Yet from the other side of the 2008 economic clusterfuck, Cain’s spiels appear as sensible as a straightforward mom-and-pop lease that’s less about profit and more about everybody getting a fair shake. This may explain, in part, why David Mamet was enlisted to write the screenplay for the surprisingly subpar 1981 Bob Rafelson film adaptation. By the way, I’m not a fan of the 1946 version with Lana Turner, pictured above, and John Garfield. It’s probably because I encountered Cain in books first. On the page, Cain’s intensity, however melodramatic, felt real — in large part because Cain let you in on the mechanics. (It’s not much of a surprise for anyone to learn that Cain did an uncredited rewrite on Out of the Past, another noir masterpiece.) On the big screen, with the exception of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary Double Indemnity, Cain’s books transformed into entertaining but easy camp. One need look no further than Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce to see the problem. (There is presently a Mildred Pierce miniseries being made by Todd Haynes. It will be most interesting to see how Haynes approaches this problem.)

It’s also there in Serenade, a wonderful cultured tough guy novel that doesn’t get nearly the same respect afforded to Postman and Double Indemnity:

There was an outdoor performance of Carmen that night at the Hollywood Bowl, at a dollar and a half top but with some seats at seventy-five cents, so of course we had to go. If you want to know where to find an opera singer the night some opera is being given you’ll find him right there, and no other place. A baseball player, for some reason, prefers a ball game.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to be writing about The Postman Always Rings Twice. But can you think of any fiction of the time (1937!) that was so transparent about the cultural class divide?

At nineteen, I was quietly angry and vocally playful. I didn’t want people to know what I knew, because I wasn’t sure it had any bearing on what I was supposed to be. (And, boy, was I wrong!) I felt misunderstood, yet I often talked down hotheads from beating each other up and people told me their stories. I was often confused as some guy in his thirties by way of a vocabulary I picked up from books and British friends and from careful listening. So Cain completed the holy trinity when I first read Postman by accident, picked up at random from a library. I was floored by the way Cain laid it out in that famous first paragraph:

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. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave a cigarettes, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Very early in this website’s history (January 15, 2004, to be precise), I rewrote that passage in first person plural to protest the then omnipresence of the McSweeney’s “we.” (Yes, Virginia, there was a time in which Joshua Ferris was just some advertising copy writer.) I’ve since loosened up about first person plural — especially since we are blessed with such great novels as Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way (published only last week!).

But however you roll on the question of “we,” straight declarative punch — particularly punch that is this compact and that instantly throws you into the story — is never a bad thing. My nineteen-year-old self considered Cain to be fiction’s answer to Samuel Fuller’s filmmaking theory: “Grab ’em by the balls.” Yet Cain got there first. I set out to read everything he’d ever written.

I remember an expedition to the now defunct McDonald’s Books on Turk Street. I walked past transgender prostitutes propositioning me into a redolent and wildly unorganized used bookstore then legendary among a certain cultured underground type that one can no longer find. McDonald’s was a crumbling place with stacks of old magazines you couldn’t find in any library and the stink of old books sullied by bodily fluids from years before. This was not a place for neat freaks or the prissy. You really had to love books. From a hygienic standpoint, one had to be careful. But I found several volumes of Cain here. This included a hardcover called The Baby in the Icebox, which I still have. Any guy writing a story with that title was jake with me.

My Cain mania caused me to read the man’s canon again after I read through it once before. “I don’t think there’s ever been a man so moony that a little bit of chill didn’t come over him as soon as a woman said yes,” wrote Cain in Serenade. Being shy at the time, especially in relation to women, and not having a father figure, it was a revelation to see these feelings, which embarrassed me, presented in such a bold and confident manner. And I remain convinced that, had it not been for Cain, I would not have the effrontery that I have now.

But that was many years ago. Until the Modern Library Reading Challenge, I hadn’t thought to read Cain again, although I did buy a number of his books for nervous younger friends. A few weeks ago, I picked up the beat-up paperback for the first time in fifteen years.

“Rip me! Rip me!”

I ripped her. I shoved my hand in her blouse and jerked she was wide open, from her throat to her belly.

Eat your heart out, Harlequin. I was amazed that I had forgotten much of this. And yet within the novel’s context, it works. For Frank Chambers, the drifter skipping around the nation (“Kansas City? New York? New Orleans? Chicago?” “I’ve seen them all.”), isn’t strictly a primal lowlife who starts working at a gas station and contrives to kill Nick Papadakis (the owner) because he wants to get Cora Papadakis’s pants. This template has been repeated a thousand times over, but many of the hacks who ripped off Cain forget his nuances. Frank has a respect for Papadakis. “He never did anything to me,” says Frank to Cora early on. “He’s all right.” Yet despite this rational thinking, Frank allows lust to overcome him. (Good Lord, did I actually use The Postman Always Rings Twice as an example when, at the age of twenty-two, I talked with a married man who was trying to figure out why he remained more committed to his adulterous affairs? I did.) Even when Frank gets away with murder, he has a self-sabotage streak. He rolls out of town and chases tail. He protests some beer developments that makes the roadside gas station money. Why is lust such a draw for Frank? Is it because he’s easily bored? Because he doesn’t know how to settle down?

This time around, I found myself looking at Postman more from Cora’s perspective than Frank’s. What isn’t Frank telling us about Cora? For a woman who protests about Nick so much, why doesn’t she just leave? After all, isn’t that just as easy as carrying on an affair with some stranger coming in off the road?

“I loved you. I would love you without even a shirt. I would love you specially without a shirt, so that I could feel how nice and hard your shoulders are.”

If Frank is tinkering with his memory (and, given the final chapter’s revelation, he’s certainly in a rush to tell his story), then, even accounting for the intense language exchanged during vigorous banging, this dialogue from Cora seems more like an unreal fantasy. Especially since Frank is careful to inform us at an inquest that he’s telling “a cock-eyed story I was going to take back later on, when we got to a place where it really meant something.” But if Cora is being idealized, then does Frank’s story within Postman “really mean something?” Perhaps the story means more in what it doesn’t tell us.

The best rereads are those books that cause you to recognize certain changes within yourself. If you have nearly the same reaction years later, chances are that the author didn’t have much in the way of ambition. After reading Postman for the third time, I’m now wondering who Frank Chambers will be when I read him fifteen years from now.

Next Up: Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky.