Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Butterfly (1946)

By what I can glean from James M. Cain's 1946 preface, The Butterfly originated many years earlier as a story of a mostly indigent family from the Big Sandy River country of Appalachia who heads out for a better life in California. Cain abandoned it when he caught wind of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and subsequently ransacked the manuscript for scenes and passages of other novels. But it's not at all like Steinbeck's novel, not least because the central animating plot point is a complicated story of adultery and incest, and not much of anything to do with the noble dignity of poverty. It trucks in broad stereotypes, often cutting over to the lurid chiefly because it can, and thus the only interest it holds is in wondering how far it will go. It's a rush job potboiler in its final, brief form (barely 100 pages), with a lot of complications intended to demarcate the innocent and corrupt in programmatic fashion, which results in everyone being corrupt, though not necessarily by the terms of the story, which is just annoying. All the never-ending mysteries set up here could be resolved credibly, quickly, and without drama by a few judicious DNA tests. I was frankly shocked by the snide way Cain unfailingly assumes his own superiority to the rubes and hayseeds he condescends to put through predictable paces. Corn liquor in fruit jars, grotesque ignorance, depraved behavior, and pride. Guns, humiliations. He probably has many details about the lives of his characters right—as he firmly asserts in the preface. But he clearly never quite sees them as human. One wonders what might have happened if he'd never heard of the Steinbeck book and finished. It's possible there's a good story in this group of characters, though less easy to see how it works as a James M. Cain novel. He seems most effective to me with more money around the place—in insurance companies, opera, suburban Southern California. The Postman Always Rings Twice shows that he could write about poverty convincingly. But he'd have had to get a lot more delicate in The Butterfly a lot quicker, in areas such as incest, and he'd have had to find ways to make it more believable. Two tall orders there.

In case it's not at the library.

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