Monday, November 16, 2009

Back to California Fiction

I had never read anything by James M. Cain before today. The Postman Always Rings Twice is short and suspenseful -- a good read, and not at all dated. I enjoyed the setting in southern California, with just enough local color from the 1930s.

The narrator, Frank Chambers, is an unlikeable, hard-boiled drifter and petty criminal who unthinkingly becomes a cold-blooded murderer. In some ways the narrator makes me think of Camus' The Stranger -- he just doesn't quite know how all these things happen to him, and exists from minute to minute. Chambers constantly drifts downward, manipulated by a woman named Cora -- I see her as very individualized example of a stereotyped temptress. Camus didn't portray any character like Cora.

In the novel, ethnic prejudice against Cora's husband Nick -- a likeable, successful Greek cafe owner -- is a heavy theme. At the very beginning, she asserted her plain-white-American identity: a girl from Iowa, married to a Greek. All she wanted was a secure life, and didn't mind being the cook in Nick's diner kitchen, but she had nothing but hatred and disgust for Nick himself. Cain's first-person narrative is so convincing that you almost (only almost) wish Frank and Cora well with their despicable scheme to get possession of her husband's cafe, car, and money. And the several reversals at the end (which I won't spoil) make it all the better reading.

I just looked up the two films made from this book, which I've heard of but never seen. In 1946, Lana Turner played "Cora Smith" whose husband was "Nick Smith" -- in other words, the film removed the ethnic identity issue. The 1981 remake starred Jack Nicholson as the drifter, Frank Chambers, and Jessica Lange as Cora Papadakis. My guess is that the first film would have become much more dated than the book. Maybe I'll watch the films some time. I definitely want to read another of Cain's stories from the collection I have checked out of the library.

Also see Road Food, 1934 on my food blog for another view of the story.

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