James M. Cain’s characters are ordinary people—capable of decency, passion, and crime—caught up in situations from which they seem incapable of extricating themselves. Cain valued the commonplace person and prided himself on writing the way people talk. In order to write accurately about the vagrants in The Moth (1948), for example, he visited the missions in Los Angeles where tramps gathered and interviewed many of them. He keeps up a relentless pace in his stories with a minimum of description and with blunt, brisk, and fast-paced dialogue.
Lack of exposition, typical of Cain’s narrative style, also helps maintain the momentum. The reader is immediately confronted with an action in the present; in only one of Cain’s twelve novels is there any flashback to explain the protagonist’s background. What mattered to Cain’s readers was not his characters’ appearance. Cain’s editors usually had to ask him to be more explicit about what his people looked like; the most he ever gave them was a movie-star approximation: “Like Clark Gable [or some other movie star]—fill it in yourself.” What mattered to Cain was a character’s “presence” as expressed in action. It was probably this virile approach to storytelling that endeared him to the French existentialists and the postwar Italians, who favored such a style.
The opening scene of “Brush Fire” depicts a group of men wielding shovels against a forest fire, coughing from the smoke and cursing. They have come up from the railroad yards on the promise of money to be made; they have been fed a ration of stew in army mess kits, outfitted in denims and shoes, and taken by truckloads from Los Angeles to the hills to fight this brush fire. We do not learn the protagonist’s name until well into the story when the CCC man calls out the roll; we never learn the name of his girlfriend. The one introspective moment in the story expresses the protagonist’s regret at leaving her:They parted—she to slip into the crowd unobtrusively; he to get his mess kit, for the supper line was already formed. As he watched the blue dress flit between the tents and disappear, a gulp came into his throat; it seemed to him that this girl he had held in his arms, whose name he hadn’t even thought to inquire, was almost the sweetest human being he had ever met in his life.
By the end of the story he has committed murder for the sake of this nameless girl, and the man he kills in the evening is the same man whose life he had saved in the morning. The reporters who have covered both events are struck with the inherent ironies, but the protagonist, who moves unthinkingly from blind...
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