Monday, July 21, 2014

James M. Cain: "The world's great literature is peopled by thorough-going heels"

James M. Cain was a member of the California school of hard-boiled fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were his contemporaries. But while Hammett and Chandler explored the world through private eyes, Cain looked at it from the P.O.V. of a working class woman called Mildred Pierce with a viper for a daughter, and a bored roadhouse wife who lures a poor sap into killing her husband. Cain found drama in the lives of regular folks.

Maybe that's why he likes short stories. He wrote the intro to For Men Only, a book of stories by (mostly) men and for men fighting in World War II. This is part of World Publishing's "Books in Wartime" series, thinner and smaller books in service to the war effort. The 70-year-old volume did its job admirably, only now coming aparts at the seams. It has a handwritten inscription on the inside cover: "Bill -- Xmas Greetings 1945 -- Peg-o." Peg-o had nice handwriting. Wonder where she and Bill are now? Did they get hitched, or was this just a literary wartime fling?

In the intro to the anthology, Cain praised the short story.
In one respect, not usually noted, it is greatly superior to the novel, or at any rate the American novel. It is one type of fiction that need not, to please the American taste, deal with heroes.Our national curse, if so perfect a land can have such a thing, is the "sympathetic" character.
Cain's main characters were not sympathetic. And when I think of memorable short stories, it's not "sympathetic" characters that stand out but ones rife with human foibles. Think of the misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Raymond Carver's stories are populated with an assortment of deluded humans, such as the fishing buddies in "So Much Water so Close to Home." Annie Proulx's Wyoming stories are filled with the most arresting array of barflies and cowboys and real estate speculators. You don't want to hug a one. In my story "Roadkill," a World War II veteran is faced with a moral choice that may change his life for the good -- or it may not.

Cain concludes his intro:
The world's great literature is peopled by thorough-going heels, and in this book you will find a beautiful bevy of them, with scarce a character among them you would let in the front door. I hope you like them. I think they are swell.
I do. And they are.

No comments: