When 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.
And 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.