Nothing More American: On James M. Cain


WITH ITS ARTLESSLY PERFECT FIRST SENTENCE — “They threw me off the hay truck about noon” — James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice drew a line in the sand as defiant as any in literature since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not unlike that novel, Postman forced an untamed populist voice onto more exalted cultural sensibilities; of course, nothing could be more American. Cain is a major figure of American fiction’s shadow pantheon, the one that includes not Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Steinbeck but Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, with Faulkner, Miller, and Pynchon wandering the demilitarized zone between. The most commercially successful of them, Cain was also the most spiritually bleak, finding his calling late and fast in the Depression’s depths after a fitful career as a journalist. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) was a sensation and scandal, at the other end of the bookshelf from The Grapes of Wrath (1939): Tom Joad may have been riding that hay truck too, but Frank Chambers is the one who got thrown off.

more from Steve Erickson at the LA Review of Books here.