|Sep 13 2012
James M. Cain explores the making of a femme fatale.
Years back there was a line in The Saturday Review of Literature that famously declared, “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.” Well, we almost stopped reading Cain's newly published posthumous novel The Cocktail Waitress. The protagonist, divorcée Joan Medford, is forced to get a job as a bar server after her husband dies in an auto accident. As the cover art by Michael Koelsch depicts, the job requires her to show a lot of skin. She hates it, but soon learns it provides opportunities with the various regulars. The main thrust of the novel involves a basically good woman deciding to use any means at her disposal to wrest her child back from a predatory relative. To the old man she wants to marry for money (and to impress child custody authorities) she's a femme fatale. To the cop who knows she's fighting to win back her child she's a brave mother. To the young man who's spurned in favor of the rich man she's psychological torture.
Her multifaceted nature is interesting, but would work better if Cain spent less time inside her head. But that's where he lives for the entirety of the book, mansplaining his way in circles. You'd know the character was written by a man even if the book were anonymous. We don't claim to know how women think, but we know they don't think like this. Cain wrote many drafts of The Cocktail Waitress—which may be an indication he knew he was in over his head. But for all the issues with the book, we think it's a win—narrowly. And the ending, with its twist that may be lost on readers unless they remember Thalidomide, is Cain at his nasty best. Posthumous novels are rarely great, and authors with long careers are rarely as good at the end as at the beginning or middle. The Cocktail Waitress is both posthumous Cain and late Cain, so we can say without too much fear of contradiction that he's done much better. But Cain fans, we expect, will love this one anyway.