James M. Cain’s strengths as a novelist are inextricably bound to his weaknesses. He has often been praised for the economy of his style and the speed with which he moves his narrative. Readers experience a delicious sense of surrender to the headlong impetus of his storytelling, yet motion in Cain’s work often masks wayward prose and manipulative plotting. Critics have remarked on the cinematic quality of his writing. His protagonists live in his pages with the vibrant immediacy of Hollywood icons on the big screen. Cain’s actors flirt with caricature; his characterizations are often so primitive and mechanical that they are ludicrous in retrospect.
Cain explores elemental passions in his novels. Sex, jealousy, and greed drive his characters as they thrust themselves into webs of crime and deceit. The intensity of Cain’s evocation of this raw emotionalism imbues certain of his most notorious scenes with a surreal naturalism. Frank and Cora’s frenzied lovemaking next to the body of the man they have killed in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Sharp’s rape of Juana in a church in Serenade transcend and transfigure the more mundane trappings of Cain’s stories. Moments like these also open Cain to the charge that he is trafficking in sensationalism, reveling in the sordid for its own sake. There is a voyeuristic quality to Cain’s writing. He exposes his readers to the scabrous underside of the American Dream. Although he occasionally referred to his novels as morality tales, Cain rarely provides any moral alternative to the obsessive dreams of his characters, other than the faceless brutality of authority.
In Cain’s universe the only law is chance. His protagonists enjoy no dignity with their various ends. Unlike the heroes of classical tragedy, their destinies do not illuminate the contours of a higher moral order. They are simply victims of an impersonal and blindly malevolent fate. This nihilism gives Cain’s writings much of their enduring power. He captured the desperation of people leading blighted lives in a world wracked by the Great Depression. As long as men and women continue to sense their own powerlessness in a modern, mass-produced society, Cain’s fables of reckless desire will resonate with readers.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Cain’s first novel is generally considered his greatest. It adumbrates themes and techniques that characterize his fiction. The Postman Always Rings Twice is cast in the form of a confession written by Frank Chambers on the eve of his execution. Frank, like many of Cain’s protagonists, is doomed by his...
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