26 February 2012
Book Review: "The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James Cain
In 5th grade I read Where the Red Fern Grows and spent the entire time wondering why the author decided on that for his title. There is not one mention of fern (let alone red fern) for most of the book. It's not until the very last page where the meaning of the title is revealed. It involves dead dogs. That's a big spoiler but really, you should totally see it coming. It's a book about a boy who loves his dogs. Of course the dogs are going to get it.
I felt similar about this svelte little novel, waiting until the very last page to catch a fleeting reference to twice-ringing postmen. The result? Nothing. It's a non-sequitor, almost completely unrelated to the happenings of the story. Perhaps through a tedious form of mental gymnastics one could produce a metaphor to justify the title, but I don't quite buy it.
I just think it's a nice sounding title.
The book itself is a fun, quick read - a classic of the 1930's hard-boiled crime genre. A wily drifter enters into a fiery love affair with a femme fatale who co-owns a rural California rest stop with her jolly Greek husband. The two form a plot to kill the Greek, but things quickly go awry and what ensues is a winding tale of violence, sex, and (perhaps most gruesome) lawyers.
Two things pop out to me. First, I think back to The Natural, which I read earlier last month. My biggest gripe with that book was the fact that I could never get behind the protagonist, Roy Hobbs. I was too focused on all the many things I didn't like about him to support his struggles. At times when I was supposed to feel empathy, I only felt frustration. In Postman, we've got a classically awful human being as our protagonist but I never found myself struggling to be interested in his conflicts. Perhaps the fact that I was reading the story as told by him in the first person provided a more personal connection than was felt in The Natural, which featured a third-person narrator. Perhaps there is just a certain charisma in his words that was not evident in the very, very uncharismatic Hobbs. Either way, I found it interesting that I was so invested in the plight of such a reprehensible figure. Call it the Lolita effect.
The other thing that hit me about Postman was the swiftness and ease of Cain's storytelling. When I finished the book I felt like I had gone through 200 pages worth of twists and turns. Postman packs that kind of punch in only half that amount of pages. Cain is very economical with his words, opting for terse images and descriptions and supporting his story with a steel narrative skeleton.
Postman was banned in Boston at one time because of its "obscene" content, but the definition of that word has evolved enough since the 1930's that this book's notorious subject matter is nothing more than PG-13 stuff by 2012 standards. I recommend this sexy little crime novel with the non-sequitor title for anyone who digs compelling crime stories and anyone who likes The Maltese Falcon but wishes the characters would just talk less and act more.
It's a good novel -- nothing I'd ever elevate to must-read status, but certainly worth a glance if you're allured by the famous title and you've got 115 pages to kill.