Friday, September 21, 2012

"Waitress, there's a fly in the ointment that is my drink!", or, The Cocktail Waitress Fatale

It's been a fantastic couple of months for crime fiction fans, from Gillian Flynn's breakout, Gone Girl, to another solid Tana French novel, Broken Harbor, and Megan Abbott's Dare Me, maybe the best of the bunch. But the book I'd most looked forward to didn't arrive until this week, and it turns out to have been worth the wait. James M. Cain's The Cocktail Waitress, which had lain buried, in overlapping drafts, in Cain's papers since his death in 1977, would be a reason for excitement even if all it did was resurrect, however briefly, Cain's distinct storytelling voice--that toxic mix of desire, desperation, and bad choices--but it goes one better: it gives us that voice, but this time it's the voice of the femme fatale herself, new widow Joan Medford.

Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai notes in his afterword that
Of course, no femme fatale thinks she is one, or admits it if she does.
And therein lies the chief pleasure of the novel: deciding how much to believe the mostly-innocent-girl-wronged story it tells. After all, how else can a reader respond to an account whose first chapter includes this explicit self-justification:
So what's the fly in the ointment, and why am I taping this? It's in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slanders against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after--always the same charge, the one Ethel flung at me of being a femme fatale who knew ways of killing a husband so slick they couldn't be proved.
Ardai glosses the passage in his afterword:
It's the inherent contradiction in any work of fiction, the one we all conveniently ignore each time we sit down to enjoy a novel: Can we believe what this narrator is telling us? Well, no, of course not--it's all lies, it's all made up, that's what fiction is. But within the fiction, you say, if we imagine ourselves inhabitants of the characters' world instead of our own, can we believe what we're being told then . . . ? Most of the time you assume the answer is yes: You can trust what Huck Finn tells you; Ishmael isn't lying to you about what went on between Ahab and Moby-Dick. But why do you believe that? How in the world do we know that Ishmael didn't kill all his fellow seamen and then wreck the Pequod himself to cover his tracks?
What's particularly fascinating about Cain's book is that he doesn't play games--there are no half-hidden clues, the sort that you're supposed to see if you read closely and that would fatally undermine the narrator; in their place is nothing but uncertainty, and a vague sense that, as one character says of Joan, "Something about you doesn't quite match up."

What's most interesting about that narrative uncertainty is that, according to Ardai, the first draft of The Cocktail Waitress was written in the third person. Cain was a good enough writer that I wouldn't want to say he couldn't have made it work that way, but there's no question that the point of view is crucial to the book's success now--the plot itself creaks just a tad here and there, and what renders that unimportant is Joan's voice, and the niggling doubt we can't ever quite let it push away.

To raise our uncertainty but refuse to definitively settle the question, even obliquely, and to manage despite to present a couple of quite surprising plot twists is quite an achievement. The Cocktail Waitress may not be up to the level of Cain's best (for my money the odd, nearly picaresque novel of sexual malleability and artistic ambition Serenade), but its resurrection is nonetheless something crime fiction fans should celebrate.

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