You’ve probably heard of James M. Cain, even if you haven’t. At any rate, you can probably visualize a 1930s-40s private detective—a black and white image of a chain-smoking, fedora-wearing, wisecracker striped by the shadow of some thick window blinds. It’s probably Humphrey Bogart. That’s the image that people get when they think of classic noir. And Cain was one of the “Big Three” of noir. He was the Aristotle to Dashiell Hammett’s Socrates and Raymond Chandler’s Plato. With Hammet, we got Sam Spade (most notably in The Maltese Falcon), a private dick who’s best described as world-weary. Chandler gave us Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep), the romantic poet of the streets who prowled with a judgmental yet sympathetic eye. Cain went further, telling the stories of the morally complex low-lives who Spade and Marlowe thumbed their noses at. From Cain, we get women desperate to escape loveless marriages, men down on their luck and pushed to their limits by economic circumstances, and a kind of complex version of right and wrong that America simply wasn’t ready for in the 1940s. Cain’s books are crime novels because they don’t fit in Ward Cleaverland. Published today, they might just be considered “novels.”
Cain’s three masterpieces are The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity—all excellent books that have been made into excellent films. There’s love, lust, murder, feminism, unsympathetic legal systems, and more than a few money issues. These themes still ring true today—if you want to know who the 47% are, read Cain. Now, a new novel—The Cocktail Waitress—has gotten the Tupac treatment.
With The Cocktail Waitress, we see many of the same things from earlier Cain novels. We also see a hint of Nobokov: Our narrator, Joan, is telling her story as a confession, and we’re not sure how much we can trust her narration. Her first marriage was a shotgun wedding to an abusive drunkard who is dead from the beginning: He got drunk, slapped his son around, fought with Joan, then drove into a brick wall. Joan’s vengeful sister-in-law gains custody of her son, and Joan is determined to get him back at all costs. She takes up a job as a waitress in a bar, making tips off of guys looking down her blouse (no, seriously, this is discussed at length. Based on the text, Joan has the body of Scarlet Johannsen, if not bustier). Soon, she meets two men, Tom and Walter.
Tom is straight out of Fitzgerald: wealthy without any money, handsome, and a drunkard. Walter is your basic wealthy old man: he orders one club soda every evening and leaves Joan $20 tips (again: boobs), but he has angina, so a “normal marriage” is out of the question. This being the 20th century, Joan needs to find a husband. She’s attracted to Tom, but he’s a louse. She likes Walter, but he’s old, and ew.
After some agonizing, Joan marries Walter. It looks like gold-digging, but she won’t tell it that way—she does love him. Unfortunately for Walter, she despises the thought of his wrinkly old man-flesh writhing on top of her and then waking up with a corpse in her arms. Unfortunately for Joan, Walter has been staring down her shirt for a long time, and now wants to see “the whole show.” After seeing the whole show, he tries to force himself on Joan, who forces him back off, and then he has an angina attack. He doesn’t die, but neither does his desire for Joan. Eventually, he starts getting happy endings from a massage therapist. This kills him.
I should bring up the police here. Two cops were investigating Joan’s first husband’s death, and one of them is the kind of guy who watches too much Law and Order: SVU, if that show existed back then. He’s convinced that Joan killed both of her husbands, that she’s a gold-digging bitch, and that she needs to be put away forever. By an insane coincidence that can only happen in fiction, Tom dies shortly after Walter, fueling our Detective Stabler-wannabe’s fire. I won’t spoil the outcome of her trial, because that’s not what’s important.
What’s important isn’t even who’s right. Joan’s an unreliable narrator, but she’s also a victim of a monstrously patriarchal system desperate to enforce an impossible moral code. That’s the trick of the novel: Who you side with reveals your ideology. You can accept Joan as someone who used her physical assets to navigate a system in which she’s profoundly disadvantaged. Or you can think of her as a slut and a tramp who shows off some cleavage while slinging drinks and then marries the first rich dude who comes along. That’s classic Cain: Moral ambiguity, but you should probably side with the poor people and forgive them of their alleged murders.
Those are the morals, but what of the actual novel? It always feels weird reading work the author never intended the world to see. I love Franz Kafka, and I think Max Brod did the world a tremendous favor by publishing The Trial and The Metamorphosis and everything else, rather than relegating them to some lonely Czech bonfire. That said, there are a few conflicting thoughts about reading a posthumous novel. Is it fair to the writer? They probably don’t want their unpolished drafts slung before the masses for a quick buck. Then again, what if they were on the verge of something huge? What if it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before?
I mostly enjoyed The Cocktail Waitress, but it is flagrantly unpolished. It’s essentially 200 pages of Joan being mildly tortured, and it doesn’t necessarily give us anything Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, or The Postman Always Rings Twice gave us. It doesn’t really contribute to Cain’s legacy—hey, the old man was working on another version of the stories he’d already told us! The novel loses steam towards the end—Tom dying just after Walter is unnecessarily convoluted–and the final act is far too rushed. Without spoiling anything, we get some weak assurances that Our Heroine will be alright, despite evidence to the contrary on the preceding page. If this was what Cain wanted the world to see, then he was more washed-up than Roger Clemens pitching in minor league games at age 50. It’s not a bad read, but does Cain’s legacy need this update?