Book Review

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

struck down by covid, scott crawls into a classic novel

written early January 2022

I was sick, so thought I’d read a classic short novel.

I’ve written before about the rare pleasure that comes from a fresh, unspoiled, reading of a canonically great book (this is a rare pleasure because I’ve already read a lot of “obvious” books from the first half of the twentieth century, not because I think there aren’t great books continuing to be written in (or translated into) English all the time), and it was nice to have that again, especially as a backdrop to me beating off a viral infection – which was almost certainly COVID n-n-n-nineteen.

As I was sick and oozing from my nose and my throat was struggling to open enough to let in the spicy vegetable mush I fed myself as an attempt to force through my illness (it’s what I do with colds and it felt like a cold, even though it was most likely omicron-19), it was great to have the opportunity to read through a rip-roaring hard-boiled noir novel from 1934. I’ve also never seen the widely acclaimed 1946 film, so I was headed for a full on “spoiler free” experience.

1934, which surprised me, when I flicked back to the copyright page halfway thru James M Cain’s debut novel, because it doesn’t feel like it’s from ’34, it feels like it’s from ’54.

I am willing to bet Hemingway read this and wanted to beat Cain to death.

This is writing of that terse, evocative “this happened and then that happened and so this had to happen” declarative American style, telling a lusty story of American dreaming and American murder;

it’s the lost generation does the beat generation;

it’s a peer of Hemingway’s tonally preempting Kerouac but with an excess of violence and the whiff of censorship – rather than Catholic guilt – holding back the text’s explicitness.

The novel was banned in some states in the US, and it is pretty horny, but though there is lots of sex, it’s of the camera-panning-away-as-people-start-to-kiss-in-a-bedroom style…

However, even with foreplay and fornication off the table, Cain makes it very clear that the protagonists – a guy who just floats around the country having adventures and a middle-aged mechanic’s hot, bored, much younger, wife – love to bang.

Cain describes the lad’s tongue getting bigger as it kisses – an unsubtle reference to penile erections – and there is a (for a mainstream novel from the 1930s) heady BDSM riff when the lovers’ first kiss begins with biting so hard blood is drawn.

It’s a horny book, a lusty book.

The young couple like to bang so much they try – and fail – to kill the woman’s husband, but when he recovers from the poorly-inflicted head wound, they separate. They end up reconnecting, coming up with a more elaborate plan for a more effective murder attempt, and though it seems to go ok at the time, the guilt gets to them bit by bit and – as they’re both destructively horny people (sex was not to be tolerated in the 1930s) – more fucking happens and secrets ooze out of their mouths like the postcoital cum from their vaginas. Everyone ends up dead.

A masterpiece. I intend to read Double Indemnity – which I’ve also never read (or seen the widely-acclaimed 1944 film) – before someone deliberately retells it to me because they’ve seen I enjoyed Cain’s earlier novel.

Thank you.

Also, one final thought: what the fuck is the title about? There isn’t a single postman involved in the narrative. Does it refer to the second murder attempt, implying that it’s inevitable that you’ll try to kill someone a second time if you try to do it once? And does this mean that in the 1930s delivery drivers tried to deliver things twice/until they were delivered? Or was there a literal postman somewhere in the book that I somehow missed? Or is it a reference to sex?


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