Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review : “The Cocktail Waitress” by James M. Cain

Cocktail Waitress2The Cocktail Waitress (Hardcase Crime)
  • Hardcover: 272 pages Publisher: Hard Case Crime / Titan Books (September 18, 2012) Language: English ISBN-10: 1781160325 ISBN-13: 978-1781160329

“James Cain – faugh! Everything he touches smells like a Billy goat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated. A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door. Do I, for God’s sake, sound like that?” – Raymond Chandler

And Chandler was right. While Chandler and before him Hammett wrote what became the hard boiled genre, Cain was lumped into that genre and was considered one of its masters. But looking back, Cain’s books and stories were nothing like the hard boiled detective’s of Chandler and Hammett. Chandler wrote protagonists who walked “...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.”  Cain’s protagonists were mean. They were tarnished and often very afraid. They were ordinary people and rarely heroes.

Although Cain vehemently opposed labeling, he is usually associated with the hardboiled school . In actuality he was creating a new genre or subgenre and one that would rise to the top when the hard boiled school was loosing its interest. What Cain did, along with Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis, was  create “noir fiction” or as the French labeled it, “roman noir”.  Black books. Noir often feature sleazy character instead of untarnished knights in fedora’s, they were often very tarnished, very often despicable and very often consumed by those mean streets. As Charles Ardai says in the Afterword, Cain was a dabbler in sin and scandal, a purveyor of the lurid and low.” Carnal and criminal. Cain was a “hoary old sensation monger” said Time magazine.

And that is exactly what we get with The Cocktail Waitress. Joan Medford is the protagonist of the novel. Recently widowed when her abusive husband drove off in the wee hours of the morning, in a borrowed car, drunk and angry and killed himself. He’s left Joan, just 21 years old, in a house that is heavily mortgaged, the utilities disconnected, and a young son who also suffered abuse at the hands of his father. Joan has no prospects, and no job experience. What’s worse is the police refuse to close the case.  They think that there is a distinct possibility that Joan somehow caused the crash.

One sympathetic Sergeant tells Joan that he can get her a job waiting tables at The Garden, and once the owner sees her, she puts her in a skimpy outfit in the cocktail lounge. There Joan meets two men. The first is a young, handsome dreamer with prospects, Tom Barclay. The other is an older gentleman, a pot belly, tall and gangly and not possessing any sex appeal for Joan. But Earl K. White III is rich. He is successful. And he also falls for Joan. But Earl suffers from angina and has been warned by his doctor that having sex would kill him. Still, every night he leaves Joan a $20 tip, that being a tidy sum in the early ‘60s where the novel is set.

The story is told by Joan, as a tape recording, as she puts it, “It’s in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slander against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after____” . What follows is Joan in an innocent voice, that displays at once naiveté and a conspirators black heart, detailing the events of the next few months. She tries to justify her motives for marrying Earl, in order to provide her young son with a privileged upbringing. And she tries to justify her love affair with Tom. 

Where Cain flourished was in being that Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. And that shines through in the character of Joan. Joan walks a line between greed and ambition. She justifies her actions as being a sacrifice for her son, but even as she tries to justify it, the greed leaks through. Cain achieved this ‘dirty way’ of writing in his earlier books, Postman, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity. By the mid fifties his works no longer garnered the commercial and critical success of his writings of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Cocktail Waitress isn’t a rival of that earlier work. Instead, it does display that ability to walk that fine line with his characters. And that part of it is masterful. The story is somewhat original, but don’t look for ground breaking achievements or new twists on this tale of greed and avarice. The character of Joan even bares a resemblance to Mildred Pierce, but this tale is told from her point of view.


At times the plot wanders, and it’s no wonder when you consider that Charles Ardai used numerous manuscripts, notes and other writings to finally present the story to the public. The words are Cain’s but whether he would have put it together this way is something we may never know. At times the narrator seems to change her  voice but it soon comes back to the point at hand. You can almost feel two different versions of the tale being welded together in places. What the reader is left with is a story that differs from most of Cain’s work. It’s not tight, flint-edged and arrow straight. Still, it is vintage Cain and won’t disappoint in the least. And, as if to prove he still had the masters hand, Cain writes an ending that the reader will never see coming. It’s as if that car driven by that drunk, abusive husband was meant to run the reader down. Stephen King called the book a reader’s novel. It is that, and one that fans of noir or hard boiled books will have to have on their shelf. It’s also a novel for the casual fan as the book may just be pedestrian Cain, but it’s still a tale from James M. Cain and a lot of writers today would like to duplicate even pedestrian Cain.

Article first published as Book Review : The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain on Blogcritics.

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