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Hemingway stream-lined and accelerated
on July 9, 2002
I spent some time trying to find out why this potboiler turned literature is called "The Postman Always Rings Twice" since at no place in the novel is a postman even mentioned. At first I thought it might be an echo of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, dreamt up by Knopf, Cain's publisher, to lend some literary pretension to a novel they weren't sure about; but that play wasn't written until some years after Postman was published in 1934. It was recently suggested to me (by Joseph Feinsinger, one of Amazon.com's best reviewers of literature) that it might be a rejoinder for the saying "opportunity knocks only once," which was the sort of pabulum given to out of work people during the depression. Cain's original title was "Bar-B-Que," which is entirely appropriate for a couple of reasons (the café, the burning car), but was perhaps a little too morbid for Knopf's sensibilities.
At any rate, the title finally chosen is somewhat magical as is the novel itself, the first of Cain's hard-boiled, loser tales that somehow caught the imagination and psyche of depression America. Re-reading the novel today one wonders why, but then again, I can see why.
First there's the raw sex with Frank forcing himself onto Cora, biting her lip, etc. and she loving it, that was somewhat shocking for its time. Ditto for the spontaneous sex they have in the dirt outside the car after Frank has beamed Nick. Then there is the fascination we have with stupid people doing vile deeds rather clumsily (with whom we might identify). But more than anything else it's the style. Cain raised the dime novel to something amazing with his no nonsense, no time to chat, no description beyond the absolutely necessary--a pared-down to raw flesh and bones writing style that made even some of the icons of literature sit up and take notice. Edmund Wilson, long the dean of American literary critics, was intrigued by the novel, as was Franklin P Adams who called it "the most engrossing, unlaydownable book that I have any memory of." (Quoted from Paul Skenazy's critical work, James M. Cain (1989), pp. 20-21). And Albert Camus said that his internationally famous masterpiece The Stranger was based in part on Postman. The alternate English title, "The Outsider," perhaps reveals its debt to Cain more clearly. Today the sex seems rather tame and the terse style seems almost a burlesque, having been so often imitated. I personally think that Cain, who was a one-time editor of The New Yorker and a relatively sophisticated literary man, was actually taking Hemingway's primer-prose style to its logical conclusion by simply cutting out all of Hemingway's poetic repetitions and anything else that didn't move the plot.
Well, how well does this stand up after almost seventy years? It was made into two movies, a 1946 version starring John Garfield and Lana Turner and a 1981 version starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, which you might want to compare. You can read the novel faster than you can watch either movie. I read it in an hour and I'm no speed reader. There was also a play and, believe it or not, an opera. The atmosphere is suburban naturalistic, set in the environs of Glendale, California, just north of L.A. where there really are (or mostly were) oak trees. (The name of the café is the Twin Oaks.) The story is a little confused in parts, and a little unlikely elsewhere (Cora really would not be such an adept at gun toting, and the Frank would not be so quick to fall for the D.A.'s line of chatter and turn on Cora, nor could Nick be quite so blind to the hanky-panky going on behind his back). But what Cain got so, so very right was the underlying psychology. This is a classic triangle, the old guy with the resources who can't cut the mustard anymore with a young wife who longs for love, a little excitement and to be rid of "that greasy Greek." Even deeper (and this is characteristic of Cain) is the suggestion that Nick encouraged Frank and kept him around, using his presence to spice up his own libido. Furthermore, Frank is a kind of depression-era anti-hero, who beat up on the hated railway dicks, the kind of guy who has become a film noir staple, a man who acts out his basic desires in an amoral, animalistic way. I see woman. I take woman. I eat when I'm hungry, drink when I'm dry, and sleep when I run out of gas, a kind of natural man on the run, the kind of guy we think we would like to be for a change (a brief change) in our daydreams around two p.m. on a blue Monday afternoon.
Cain followed this up with Double Indemnity (using some insurance fraud research he had left over). Double Indemnity appeared as a serial in Liberty magazine after being rejected by Redbook. It was also made into a classic Billy Wilder movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in 1944 a year after it finally appeared in book form.
Cain, along with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Nathanael West and later Ross MacDonald created a kind of southern California milieu that Hollywood has mined again and again with such postmodern films as, e.g., Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997). Read this (during lunch) for its historical value as a precursor of film noir and the hard-boiled detective novel.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Novels and other Fictions"