The Terrifying Wish that Comes True: On Cain's 'The Cocktail Waitress'

By Len GutkinSeptember 16, 2012

The Terrifying Wish that Comes True: On Cain's 'The Cocktail Waitress'

The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

“I OWE NO DEBT, beyond the pleasure his books have given me, to Mr. Ernest Hemingway,” James Cain wrote in the preface to his 1947 novel The Butterfly. “He writes of God’s eternal mayhem against Man, a theme he works into great, classic cathedrals, but one I should be helpless to make use of. I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination.” Cain goes on to assert that his bare style developed independently of Hemingway’s. Though Cain’s first novel didn’t appear until 1934, he had been practicing his distinctive prose before any of Hemingway’s books came out. The emphasis on “the wish that comes true” also distinguishes his work from Hemingway’s in terms of genre. While Hemingway fits squarely in the realist tradition, Cain, instead, tells fairy tales that end badly. For Cain, “the wish that comes true” comprises everything from spousal murder to criminally amassed wealth to incest to suppressed homosexual desire. As Freud knew, there’s nothing more shattering than getting what you really want, and Cain’s novels tend to end with the fulfillment of that ultimate secret wish — the protagonist’s death. There are exceptions, of course. Career in C Major, for instance, ends with a restored marriage, but it feels false; Mildred Pierce ends similarly, but with Mildred and her returned old man getting “stinko” on liquor, which feels true.

Along with Dashiell Hammett, Cain was the preeminent practitioner of the American “hardboiled” school. These “poets of the tabloid murder,” as Edmund Wilson memorably christened them in a piece on Cain, present, through the refractive lens of their highly stylized prose, certain unpleasant realities otherwise ignored in American literature. The hardboiled genre is informed by the dialectic between poetry and the tabloid — between, that is, self-conscious linguistic intensities and the sensationalism of the cheaper newspapers. In this, the hardboiled might be thought of as a subtype of a whole branch of American modernism, encompassing writers as different as Hemingway and Dos Passos, in which the language of reportage brings a certain flinty authenticity to what would otherwise be only literature. Cain himself seems to have understood the news as a kind of character, a voice to be inhabited. As he said regarding a late-career attempt at editorial writing for the Washington Post, “On paper I can’t be myself, always having to put my novels in the mouth of some characters… But pretending to be the corporate awfulness of the newspaper, I’m in my element.”

As Wilson writes, a focus on tabloid murder links the hardboiled school to “the larger tangles of social interest” represented, for instance, by Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I would add Zola. Like Zola’s, Cain’s doom-laden naturalism often revolves around specific commercial institutions, taken to be emblematic of the processes of modern life: the insurance industry in Double Indemnity, the restaurant business in Mildred Pierce, the bank in The Embezzler, opera in Serenade, mining and the manufacture of moonshine in The Butterfly. Cain’s novels are always about such institutions, just as Zola’s Nana is about the stage, his L’Assomoir about the bar, or his The Belly of Paris about the food industry. And Cain’s first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, treats the American dream itself in the shape of the first-generation immigrant’s small business — here the poor doomed Greek’s roadside diner:

He had drew a new sign for himself, and colored it up with red, white, and blue crayon. It said Twin Oaks Tavern, and Eat, and Bar-B-Q, and Sanitary Rest Rooms, and N. Papadakis, Prop.

“Swell. That’ll knock them for a loop.”

I fixed up the words, so they were spelled right, and he put some more curlycues on the letters.

“Nick, why do we hang up the old sign at all? Why don’t you go to the city today and get this new sign made? It’s a beauty, believe me it is. And it’s important. A place is no better than its sign, is it?"

“I do it. By golly, I go.”

But if Zola’s novels route expansive anatomies of an entire society through a given institutional lens, Cain’s work feels consciously restricted, minor howls from a minor corner. This is why Camus, famously, could cite Cain as the major inspiration for L’Etranger; Cain’s typical first-person protagonist is, like Meursault, creepily affectless, save for devastating bursts of violence or lust. Actually, violence and lust are usually intertwined in Cain, among whose achievements it is to have made sadomasochism bestseller material long before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Fifty Shades of Gray. Here’s Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, 11 pages into The Postman Always Rings Twice:

I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers… “Bite me! Bite me!”

I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

Frank and Cora’s repeated mixing of pleasure and pain goes unanalyzed in Postman, presented without psychologizing remark; it simply is. This is typical of Cain’s treatment of his characters’ sexual proclivities. In his 1937 novel Serenade, the opera singer John Sharp’s homosexuality, a topic of obvious psychoanalytic fascination in that era of high Freudianism, receives almost no attention, pejorative or otherwise, as an aspect of psychic interiority. Instead, Sharp’s sexual ambivalence — he cannot decide between his Mexican lover Juana and his conductor, Winston — manifests externally in some profound alteration to his singing voice. During periods of primarily heterosexual orientation, Sharp sings well; when he redirects his affection towards men, he sings badly. Juana rather hilariously sums up the problem: “[T]hese men who love other man, they can do much, very clever. But no can sing. Have no toro in high voice, no grrr that frighten little muchacha, make heart beat fast.” Sharp’s opera career takes a dive whenever he’s feeling inclined towards a man, but rises meteorically when he’s back to women. In Cain’s fairy-tales, sexuality doesn’t involve psychology, but magic.

Cain’s eschewal of interiority also serves his fast-paced plotting, as does his general preference for the first-person account and the quality of “here-and-nowness” it allows. Samuel Richardson liked the epistolary form because his characters could write “to the moment.” Cain, for a similar reason, structures much of his fiction as retrospective first-person accounts (written or, sometimes, recorded) culminating in a fateful present. The death of the narrator coincides with the closure — the interruption — of the text. The endings are stark, shocking, risking gimmickry and succeeding because of the risk. Postman closes in the death-house, with a little appeal to the reader that might be accidentally comical, except the reader is likely too engaged to mind the silliness: “Father McConnell says prayers help. If you’ve got this far, send up one for me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.” More formally unusual, The Butterfly concludes when our narrator is shot and killed mid-composition. The novel ends without a period:

I’m cut off. Ed Blue is out there and

In Double Indemnity’s baroque ending, the narrator winds up on an ocean-liner, scribbling the story we’ve been reading in the moments before he and his femme fatale throw themselves into the shark-infested sea:

I’m writing this in the stateroom. It’s about half past nine. She’s in her stateroom getting ready. She’s made her face chalk white, with black circles under her eyes and red on her lips and cheeks. She’s got that red thing on. It’s awful-looking. It’s just one big square of red silk that she wraps around her, but it’s got no armholes, and her hands look like stumps underneath it when she moves them around. She looks like what came aboard the ship to shoot dice for souls in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I didn’t hear the stateroom door open, but she’s beside me now while I’m writing. I can feel her.

The moon.

The end. Billy Wilder’s masterful black and white film adaptation notwithstanding, these trichromatic arrangements — red, black, and white, with the moon, we assume, partaking of each — call out for a color camera. This is Cain at his extraordinary height, unafraid of gothic contrivances but in complete control. The final sentence could feel like a pretentious overreach, a bit of modernist minimalism to go with your pulp — but in context, it doesn’t.            

Cain continued writing until the end of his life, but he couldn’t maintain the high level of his early work. His late novels are, at best, weak imitations of his work from the thirties and forties, and at worst and all too frequently, painful travesties of it. The saddest bit in Roy Hoopes’s massive Biography of the author chronicles how Cain — aged, a widower, but still writing every day — failed to publish any of the five novels he wrote between 1966 and 1971. Regarding the rejection of The Enchanted Isle, Hoopes writes poignantly that “Cain was deeply perplexed, thinking he had made this one come to life and unable to understand what he had done wrong.” No one else will be perplexed. Here’s a sample, fairly representative, from Cloud Nine, a novel written in the sixties but only published posthumously, in 1984:

“Hold me close.”

“I am holding you close.”

“Pat me.”

I patted her on the bottom, both sides.

“Paddywhack me.”

“I couldn’t make myself.

“Mr. Kirby, I could give myself to you, now.”

“Sonya, it must not, it cannot be!”

If even Cain’s best novels were, as Joyce Carol Oates sternly insists in a 1967 essay, a little too trashy to be literature — “there is always something sleazy, something eerily vulgar and disappointing in his work” — his later work fails even to be sleazy. No longer eerily vulgar, these tedious efforts are instead eerily amateurish, even incompetent. Where did the ear go? Where the vaunted craft? I know of no other major writer who so completely lost his touch.

Which brings us to The Cocktail Waitress, the last thing Cain wrote and his third novel to be posthumously released. As my friend and colleague Merve Emre has recently written in these pages, the “lost novel” is a risky genre, representing too often a cynical attempt to cash in on a deceased writer’s reputation by peddling third-rate detritus from the archives. There are nobler motivations, too, like the scholarly impetus for completeness or literary fandom’s slightly melancholy thirst for more of the good stuff from the great and dead.

The Cocktail Waitress isn’t as disastrous as some of Cain’s late novels, but neither will it create any converts. In his editor’s afterword, Charles Ardai writes that in reading the manuscript he was “reminded of why I fell in love with Cain’s writing in the first place.” This is a bit like saying that, running into your high school sweetheart at a reunion a half-century later, you’re reminded of young love. There might be something familiar about the eyes, but we’re still talking about a senior citizen, here.

It’s true, though, that The Cocktail Waitress feels like a conscious attempt on Cain’s part to get back to the elemental energy of his earlier work. The novel concerns a gold-digging but good-hearted woman named Joan who finds herself under false suspicion for the murder of not one but two husbands, the second a very wealthy older man — dying, as Cain did, of angina. I’d like to think Joan is named for Joan Crawford, who played the lead in Michael Curtiz’s 1946 film adaptation of Mildred Pierce. Indeed, The Cocktail Waitress in many ways resembles a first-person rewrite of that novel. Like Mildred, Joan is a loving mother with long, beautiful legs (there are almost no women without long, beautiful legs in Cain’s universe) who finds herself forced into restaurant work, a station she initially considers distinctly beneath her. And like Mildred, Joan’s relationships with men involve complicated blends of affection and material self-interest. But unlike Mildred, who makes a fortune as an entrepreneurial restaurateur, Joan simply remarries rich.

The novel begins at a funeral for Joan’s first husband, an abusive alcoholic who died in a drunk driving accident. Joan’s primary motive throughout is to achieve enough financial security to get her young son back from her sister-in-law, Ethel, who’s watching the kid under the pretense of family solidarity, but who really hopes to steal him away for good. She figures that telling everyone and the police that, contrary to all appearances, Joan in fact murdered her husband, will be a good way to achieve this. When Joan begins her cocktail-waitressing gig, Ethel loudly assumes that the real money comes from sleeping with patrons. She aims to find Joan an unfit mother by any means possible. On the prostitution front, she’s not far off — all the other girls, we’re told, are actually whores, though every one with a heart of gold.

Joan makes her money otherwise, though. A regular customer named Earl K. White III takes a fancy to her, leaving twenty-dollar tips on his daily order of tonic (no gin). Joan finds Earl kind but physically repellant, though she agrees to marry him when he explains that, due to his severe heart condition, his doctors have forbidden sexual contact: “That’s the fantastic torment I live in: I’ve never met a woman I’ve wanted more, I think about you to the point of distraction, of insanity we could say, but if I do about it what any normal man wants to do, I die.” As in most of Cain’s novels from the fifties onward, the writing is curiously flat, toneless, though it achieves something of Cain’s earlier successes in the comically grotesque scenes where Earl, against doctor’s orders and Joan’s expectations, attempts to consummate their marriage. Here’s one:

I said: “You can’t — your condition – ”

He buried his face in the back of my neck, at the same time pulling me close, and kneading my breasts with his fingers. This time, I had to swallow hard to keep the plane dinner from spilling out on the floor. “I’d like to finish undressing,” I told him after a moment. “If you don’t mind.

“Be my guest.”

He stepped back and I stepped from the closet back into the room. His face was flushed and he was breathing hard, but he had a smile on his face and his hands still outstretched toward me like little seeking mouths.

A horny old man with a fatal heart condition violating the terms of his Platonic marriage with his disgusted young wife — this has some of the inspired ickiness of Cain’s best situations. It’s not enough, though, to carry the book, which, while a better read than some of Cain’s later works, and much better than the other posthumous novels, remains pretty tepid. According to Roy Hoopes’s biography, there are still a couple of unpublished manuscripts in the archive. They should probably stay that way.


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Len Gutkin is a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. He has written for TLS, Boston Review, and elsewhere.


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