James M. Cain’s Serenade: Fate and Blindness

February 28, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 11 5 min read

covercoverWhen it comes to terse, morally ambivalent novels about sexually compromised men and bullfighting, I pick James M. Cain‘s Serenade any day of the week over Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises. Sure, Hemingway’s novel’s got its beauties, but there’s a humorlessness about Hemingway, a feeling of high seriousness–in The Sun Also Rises, especially–that’s a little off-putting, a little ridiculous. Cain, on the other hand, even though his work’s very much in the tragic line, still has a taste for comic details (He describes a whorehouse in Guatemala City with cans of vegetables stacked behind the bar: “When a guy in Guatemala really wants to show the girls a good time, he blows them to canned asparagus.”) Somehow these comic touches make the tragedy hit you that much harder.

covercoverAnd I’m not the only one who thinks Cain’s the crack-shot of the masculinist/Noir/laconic/hard-boiled set of early twentieth-century American writers: “Nobody has pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, not even Raymond Chandler,” wrote Tom Wolfe.  And yet Cain’s not half so well-known as his peers—maybe because his two most famous novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, became two even more famous Noir films—films so famous perhaps that they all but eclipsed their literary origins.  Also, it was Raymond Chandler who adapted Cain’s novel for the film version of Double Indemnity—so there may be some legitimate confusion about where Cain ends and Chandler begins.

But the point here is Cain’s Serenade, which is, like The Sun Also Rises, a novel about an exiled American whose sexuality’s in a bad way. Cain’s American exile, John Henry Sharp, is a once-great opera singer whose voice has dried up mysteriously, though he’s still in his prime. The mystery of what happened to Sharp’s voice is tied up with sex, but I leave the specifics out, since the book’s better if you don’t know ahead of time. Sharp’s been relegated to the opera in Mexico City—where supposedly even washed up singers can get along alright. Except that what’s left of Sharp’s voice isn’t even good enough for the Mexicans and he’s had to quit that as well.  When you meet him, he’s down to his last three pesos and he’s just seen a woman he can’t stop looking at–the woman, it goes without saying, who’s going to mean big trouble for him:

I was in the Tumpinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when this girl came in.  Everything about her said Indian, from the maroon rebozo to the black dress with the purple flowers on it, to the swaying way she walked, that no woman ever got without carrying pots, bundles, and baskets on her head from the time she could crawl.  But she wasn’t any of the colors that Indians come in.  She was almost white, with just the least dip of café con leche.  Her shape was Indian, but not ugly. Most Indian women have a rope of muscle over their hips that give them a high-waisted, mis-shapen look, thin, bunchy legs, and too much breast-works.  She had plenty in that line, but her hips were round and her legs had a soft line to them…All that I only half-saw. What I noticed was her face.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a sucker for Cain’s hit-the-ground-running Noir story-telling–talk as straight and sharp as a machete blade and twice as likely to leave you sore, since Noir heroes’ stories never end well. Cain, by his own account “shuddered at the least hint of the highfalutin, the pompous, or the literary” and true to his word, there’s none in Serenade. Yet, for my money, Cain’s writing is a far more satisfying and impressive literary experience than much of the self-consciously “literary” and “poetic” and “lyrical” stuff that passes for fiction nowadays.  It also has a real, artfully designed plot—something that contemporary “literary” authors apparently find vulgar—and this plot rip-roars along with astonishing agility and speed.  You also don’t know where’s it’s going, how’s it’s going to end (other than pretty badly—it’s a Noir novel, after all), and that uncertainty about what might be coming round the next page is exhilarating too.

There’s also something breathtaking about Cain’s hero/narrator’s unabashed frankness about sex and race (“Yes, it was rape, but only technical, brother, only technical.”), something that makes you realize how constricted the parameters of our cultural discussions about sex and race have become, and our books and movies about them—how timid and polite we’ve all become. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t have a hankering for hate-speech or stereotypes, nor do I want to return to the good ol’ pre-civil rights, -women’s rights, -gay rights days—shiver me timbers, no.  But I do sometimes feel—especially in the middle of a ripping Noir crime novel that’s tossing off generalizations about women, nationalities, cops, and pretty much any group you can think of like handfuls of confetti—that we’ve all become so nervous about being offensive and our sensitivity to offense is so heightened that we’d all just rather not talk about sex and race in any real way, certainly not explore the murkier side of things.  (Manohla Dargis recently wondered why we don’t make movies like Last Tango In Paris anymore in “The Closing of the American Erotic“; Katie Roiphe, in “The Naked and the Conflicted,,” why the sex in contemporary literature is so tepid—this would be why: we’re fucking terrified. I know I am.)

But Cain wasn’t terrified. The murkier side of things is where Cain’s novel pitches it tent—where it begins, middles, and ends. And, really, Cain, for all his name implies, and for all of his hero’s deliciously off-color opinions and confidence in his own perceptions, tells in Serenade, a story about how utterly, even tragically, wrong most of these opinions turn out to be. Juana Montes, the girl in the maroon rebozo, whom Sharp first takes to be “a little dumb muchacha,” is a lot sharper and stronger than Sharp knows; She sees him a lot better than he sees her, for all of his keen, meticulous descriptions of her body, her country, her people.  The tragedy of the Noir hero is always some version of this: He sees so much, narrates and describes what he sees so meticulously, beautifully, and yet fails to see the destruction that awaits him.  This blindness is the mark of Oedipus, the original tragic hero and the Noir hero’s earliest ancestor.

Cain wrote of his work: “I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination…I think my stories have some quality of the opening of the forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex, or any of the things usually cited by way of explanation, that gives them the drive so often noted. Their appeal is first to the mind, and the reader is carried along as much by his own realization that the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive, and his curiosity to see what happens to them, as by the effect on him of incident, dialogue, or character.”  What he describes sounds an awful lot like Greek tragedy—and this is the feeling you have throughout a Cain novel, a Noir novel or film: the inexorable movement towards disaster—that begins in Serenade as soon as John Howard Sharp lays eyes on Juana Montes. (But the novel and it’s tragedy isn’t just about sex, it’s very much about art, namely singing opera, and in this it shares with Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan the idea that the art sometimes destroys the artist.)

These days, novels and people seem to have lost their sense of fate and destiny (Tana French is something of an exception—she’s doing a beautiful sort of brogue-Noir right now).  Fatalism is out of fashion—and it’s infantile world-view, I’m often told when I defend it—but it does make for a damn good story.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. Ah, yes–proof that our man EH had a sense of humor. And yet this wasn’t quite enough for me. My ear just doesn’t hear or respond to Hemingway’s tone, key, pitch–whatever you want to call it. There’s something off about him for me: I find him vaguely autistic–the emotional register of his work is just repellent to me, even as I admire his style intensely. This is kind of how I feel about Alexander Pope: Can’t argue with the man’s skill as a craftsman, but there’s something sterile, a little inhuman, a little impared that that beautifully wrought language puts forward.

    Though we disagree, Eric, thank you for reading, Emily

  2. Thanks for the Cain appreciation. I have loved his writing fir awhile, and Serenade blew me away when I first read it years ago. I also like the tortured, if lesser, writing of Cornell Woolrich. But Cain was a master.

  3. Well, if we’re going to get into a Hemingway vs. Cain match, it seems as good a time as any to bring up Chandler’s feelings about Cain (from a 1942 letter to Blanche Knopf):

    “Hammett is all right. I give him everything. There were a lot of things he could not do, but what he did he did superbly. But James Cain — faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of cloth 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 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? Hemingway got to be pretty damn tiresome, but at least Hemingway sees it all, not just the flies on the garbage can.”

  4. If I’d known you were going to be so polite, I wouldn’t have been so snidely brief in my comment. I’ll just say that I’ve rarely been so entertained by a book as The Sun Also Rises. I think it’s a very disillusioned sort of humor, but funny, nonetheless. Little things, like “utilizing” wine, the above stuffed dogs. The sort of humor that would, in his later works, become less humorous and more plainly crushing.

  5. Eward Champion: what a quote that is! Utterly false, to my mind–except maybe part of the part about Hemingway–but beautifully observed. Thank you for adding it.

    I also find it kind of funny how much all these fellows whose work clearly shares a similar minimalist quality at the very least–how all of them so object to each other and to being called anything like a school. You’ve given Chandler objecting to Cain here, though they clearly share rather a lot, and Cain does it to Dashiell Hammett and Hemingway in the intro to The Butterfly–though Cain objects more to being called one of their school by Clifton Fadiman. I find myself imagining a room full of men dressed in virtually identical cowboy outfits getting mad when someone calls them a gang of cowboys and thinks they must all be related. There’s something so sweetly sensitive about it that gives the lie to the masculine, muted-affect quality of the prose.

    Also interesting that the only writer Cain acknowledges as an influence is Ring Lardner–most famous now as a great favorite of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, as well as of Salinger and Hemingway. Don’t know enough about any one of these authors to propose this as a certainty, but what if Lardner’s the key–the one they all admit to reading and on some level imitating, the means of linking them all together, whether or not they’d admit to what they shared?

    And to Eric: You are in excellent company as a stalwart admirer of The Sun Also Rises. Perhaps I’ve a tin ear and a tin nose–which is why I don’t smell the billygoat coming off Cain, as Chandler has it, and why I’m not utterly swept up, as most, I find, are, by Hemingway. Perhaps it is a matter of practice–another few readings–to train my ear to pick up his particularly subtle sort of humor, the humor whose lack so diminished my sense of the novel?

    Take care, Emily

  6. Cain doesn’t stick with me as well as his fellow cowboys, nicely listed above, maybe because once the doomed man has opened the forbidden box, the story is essentially over.

    It’s in that moment before the opening of the box, when the man is eying the dangerous woman, contemplating his humdrum life, prepared to throw it all away for a chance with her — that’s the essence of Cain. Once the decision has been made; well, as Emily said, we know it’s going to end badly. The unraveling of the plot seems almost besides the point.

    But I do remember those fateful moments…

  7. Hi Kit: The point you make about Cain–that once the forbidden box is open, the story’s conclusion is foregone–the same is true of Greek tragedy–Oedipus, Orestes–and maybe it’s even more true of Greek tragedy.

    The thing I find interesting about Cain’s doomed protagonists is that, while you know it’s going to end badly, you don’t know how badly or what kind of bad. And I find it a rather spectacular aspect of Serenade, at least, that for all the novel’s heavy foreboding of doom, there was still so much narrative suspense on the way to the foregone conclusion. I didn’t see the end of Juana’s bullfighting coming, didn’t know if Rex Gold was going to be the end of John Henry Sharp, didn’t imagine that the politico from Juana and John’s escape from Acapulco would find his way back into the plot at the end, nor the Irish captain.

    I think it shows real a gift to be able to keep the narrative suspense going even when a bad end’s certain.

    Thank you for reading, Emily

  8. Emily,
    You said it all with this sentence: “”Cain’s writing is a far more satisfying and impressive literary experience than much of the self-consciously ‘literary’ and ‘poetic’ and ‘lyrical’ stuff that passes for fiction nowadays.” When I see the word “lyrical” on the dust jacket of a novel, I drop the thing like a boiled owl. And I think you’re on to something when you speculate that the magisterial Ring Lardner is the writer these hard-boiled guys are all secretly – subconsciously? – imitating. I got such a lift out of this essay that I’m going to blow you to canned asparagus next time we meet. Keep ’em coming, sister.
    Bill Morris

  9. Have just spent a blissful weekend reading Mildred Pierce – cover to cover. Had to stop from time to wash and eat.

    Amazed at such excellent writing – plot, story and end so bitter and twisted – Mildred and Bert have alcoholism and slog to look forward and Veda a life of luxury perhaps….

    Is there another writer who conveys class, commerce, sacrifice, psychology, a woman’s “lot so entertainingly” – how insightful are Mildreds friends in their understanding of human nature- Wally’s underhand but perfectly legal shyster dealings (not out of place in the Good Wife)-

    Cain is the “IT” boy – the do-re-mi guy to quote him – want to read everyhting by him now.

    Great films but the books are something else – difference between instant coffee and the real stuff with added whisky – maybe rye.

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