This essay appears as part of the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, illustrated by Patrick Leger, available at www.foliosociety.com.
WITH ITS ARTLESSLY PERFECT FIRST SENTENCE — "They threw me off the hay truck about noon" — James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice drew a line in the sand as defiant as any in literature since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not unlike that novel, Postman forced an untamed populist voice onto more exalted cultural sensibilities; of course, nothing could be more American. Cain is a major figure of American fiction’s shadow pantheon, the one that includes not Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Steinbeck but Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, with Faulkner, Miller, and Pynchon wandering the demilitarized zone between. The most commercially successful of them, Cain was also the most spiritually bleak, finding his calling late and fast in the Depression’s depths after a fitful career as a journalist. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) was a sensation and scandal, at the other end of the bookshelf from The Grapes of Wrath (1939): Tom Joad may have been riding that hay truck too, but Frank Chambers is the one who got thrown off.
Frank meets Cora working at a roadside gas station and eatery. "Her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her" is his lively first impression. Let’s not be so superior as to assume that what Frank and Cora feel isn’t love. It’s the only love that makes sense to them, so incendiary — Cain’s working title for Postman was Bar-B-Que — that once it exhausts the language of copulation, all that’s left is the language of murder. Once Frank and Cora dispense with her immigrant husband, all that’s left is to dispense with each other in an erotic rage. "Rip me!" Cora cries to Frank, feet from the corpse, after Frank begins "to fool with her blouse, to bust the buttons […] I ripped her. I shoved my hand in her blouse and jerked. She was wide open, from her throat to her belly." Even Cain’s fellow renegades were shocked. Raymond Chandler, another ne’er-do-well with a suicide streak and serious mom issues, fired for drunkenness from his job as a mid-level executive in the oil business, was finishing his own debut, The Big Sleep (1939), with its comparatively uplifting cast of pornographers and nymphomaniacs. “Everything he touches,” Chandler fumed about Cain, “smells like a billy goat […] He’s every kind of writer I detest […] a Proust in greasy overalls […] the offal of literature."
Of all things, Cain wanted to sing opera. When that dream was frustrated, he got as far from it as he could, creatively and geographically; by the time he wrote Postman he was in Los Angeles, having fled his birth and breeding on the East Coast as son of the local college president (Cain even worked awhile as an editor for The New Yorker). Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles ...read more