“Nothing More American: On James M. Cain”
Los Angeles Review of Books
December 10, 2012
In an essay included in the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel of Los Angeles, The Postman Always Rings Twice, film critic Steve Erickson examines the significance of Cain’s novel the context of its time and genre. It was a racy book on a racy shelf, one that common sensibility prevented from being fully translated to film for five decades.
There is good reason behind all of this. As Erickson pithily observes, “Noir was to cinema as punk was to rock and roll.” Noir was where you felt for the ragged edge of literary (and cinematic) tolerance, that point where art was an inch away from becoming pornographic. Postman was the literary Piss Christ of the 1930s.
Unfortunately, an otherwise brilliant review is undermined by an irritant: either knowingly or otherwise, Erickson buys into The Noir Fiction: it wasn’t just people that were bad in the stories of Cain, Chandler, and others. It was the place.
Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles like Cain who, writing scripts within a martini’s throw of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, honed self-loathing into an aesthetic.
That reads pretty well, doesn’t it? It should. It could have come out of a Cain story, or a Chandler novel, or an early treatment of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. There is something wrong with L.A., something fundamental that is missing, and that either screws up the good people who come to the city or attracts all of the nasty elements.
This is the unspoken conceit that underlies noir fiction and film. You read it in Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy. You see it in Chinatown, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in L.A. Confidential as the two good-but-damaged people leave L.A. for, of all places, the corrupt company mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Better to live at the whim of the strike-busting Phelps Dodge Corporation, the filmmakers are telling us, than to live in a dysfunctional shit hole like Los Angeles.
Just in case we missed his point, Erickson delivers it at the end, this time in a tighter wad than before.
James M. Cain left Los Angeles in the late 1940s and his fiction was never the same. It wasn’t so much that he belonged in Los Angeles: the whole point of Los Angeles is not belonging there; it’s a city for people who don’t belong anywhere.
I have lived in L.A. long enough – and been away from it long enough – to know that there are people for whom this is profoundly true, and there are Angelenos who know that this is pure slander. For some of us, there are times in our lives where it rings true, and others that prove its falsehood. When I was young, I loved this town and it ripped the guts out of me and spit me out in a way no native son should experience. Now I’m older, and things are different, and the place seems to be returning what was once unrequited. Yet I also know now that it never was the City. It was always me.
The Noir Fiction that L.A. is broken, a silent malevolent force, is an artful projection, a conceit, a device. It is a way of assuring readers that there is nothing wrong with people, really, it is just time, place, and circumstance that screw us all up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we recognize that this device so freely shared by the guys in the back room at Musso and Frank was less a true description than an artistic tool.
Erickson seems to adopt this hyperbole, this shot-glass of Chandler dripped on one’s shirt, as the truth without reflection or examination. It is fashionable to do so. How could so many of the great L.A. authors have written about the city in that way if it all weren’t true? Conveniently, it serves the purposes of the legion of literary wanna-bes locked up in rent-controlled fifth-floor closets in Manhattan who slip six times on the ice on the way to their miserable day-jobs. L.A. isn’t a place. Manhattan, on the other hand…
The literary trade is most susceptible to the Noir Fiction. After all, its what the elite have told themselves for decades, and to be from L.A. and gain access to the halls of literary respectability, you must repeat the Noir Fiction like the Boy Scout oath, a credo: L.A. is not a real place, and nothing good emerges from it without influence from elsewhere.
Erickson, whether he believes the Noir Fiction or not, is paying his fraternity dues. That doesn’t mean we have to. We can instead recognize Los Angeles for what it is: a neutral place that has brought out the best in some (Cain and Erickson among them) the worst in others, and in the shadow of the long, slow decline of Hollywood has become the heart of a new capital of literature, arts, and culture that rivals Manhattan and Paris.
And, more prosaically, it is a place where a lot of us belong, where we feel an attachment to the people, to the place, to the very earth even when it quivers beneath our feet. We know, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that L.A.’s not bad: it’s just written that way.