Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

Newspaperman James M. Cain's first novel is so radically boiled down to the fundamentals, practically inventing the most characteristic aspects of the noir sub-genre as it goes, that it's little more than a long story, easily finished in one sitting—which is usually how it goes, especially on first encounter, because the actions and motivations come at you like pepper spray, swift, stark, and compelling. "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," it starts. Last chance to catch a breath. Maybe you've seen the movies. I actually haven't seen any of them yet. The plot is a classic love triangle, set in down-at-the-heels California Okie territory and related by drifter Frank Chambers, who wanders into the Twin Oaks Tavern shortly after noted exit from hay truck. The tavern is run by an older Greek fellow named Nick Papadakis and his young wife, the luscious Cora. It's not too long before Frank has jumped Cora, who until then has found only disappointment in her sojourn from Iowa to the Golden State, netting her only a position as short-order cook in a roadside joint and a husband almost twice her age. And it's not too long after that that Frank and Cora are plotting Nick's murder, nor after that when they rapidly begin losing trust in one another. Even if this is the origin point for many noir conventions, there are few surprises now in the basic paces though which Cain puts his characters, or even so much in any of the characters themselves. Instead, as Albert Camus must have picked up on himself, citing this as a primary inspiration for The Stranger, there is something eternally fascinating about trying to suss out the various shades of motivations for these uniformly desperate characters as Cain moves them deliberately about his chessboard. The sexuality is potent, even explosive. Papadakis never gets short shrift as the chump fifth wheel, but rather brings the pathos by the pailful. And the scenery is breathtaking, the inky black shadows of California after dark, the greasy stink of kitchens, the musk of unmade beds. Before you know it, it's over—but worth going through slowly one more time to savor how much Cain has packed in here, so efficiently and yet in such briskly headlong fashion that the desperation is palpable and never more than an inch away from the action.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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