When we meet Joan Medford, the young heroine of Cain’s posthumously published novel, it seems he has hit the bottom. Joan has just returned from the funeral of her abusive husband, whose death she is implicated in. Her young son is staying with her sister-in-law, a woman who makes clear her plans to keep him. Already beaten down by life at just twenty-one, Joan’s situation is so desperate that the job she takes as a cocktail waitress at a local bar, where she is alternately pawed by drunken guests and pressured to solicit herself to the client by a fellow waitress, seems like a stroke of great fortune.
Even this luck cannot hold, though, as Cain has more in store for Joan than even these travails. Unfortunately for Joan, the bottom is far deeper than she thought.
The Cocktail Waitress is the final book Cain wrote, and was undiscovered for over thirty years. “A true rarity,” Steven King is quoted as saying on the dust jacket, “A reader’s novel that’s also a literary event.” Cocktail Waitress is not going to make or break his legacy–which was made with his big three novels: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce.
In places, Cocktail Waitress becomes laden with the kind of expository dialogue the genre is often accused of. Like this bit below, where Joan explains her situation to the wife of a stranger she has just bailed out of jail–putting the exact sum she gained pages before that secured her future (but not the plot line) in jeopardy:
“I wanted to do something, something nice if I could, for Tom. Because…I’m marrying somebody else -or at least think I am.”
“Who is this somebody else?”
“That’s where your business ends, I’m afraid. I’ve told you all you need to know: your husband and I were nothing to each other, not friends, not even acquaintances; I helped him to help a friend, and now it’s backfired and I stand to lose something I can’t easily bare to lose, unless you help me get on your husband’s trail -as I think you’d be glad to do, if you know where he is or where he’s going.”
People just do not talk like that. At other times, though, this style works well, like when a vulgar detective explains why Joan might want to consummate her pending marriage (or consummate something with him).
“Platonic marriage, to a dame as good-looking as you, might be a bit of a strain. If that’s how it works for you, you might let me know -you might drop over some day, and I’ll take if from there. You’re a goddamn good-looking gold-digger, and I go for you, plenty.”
He reached out one finger and stroked it along the side of my face. I wanted to grab it and bend it backward, snap it clean through, but what I did was smile my prettiest smile and lift the digit off me ever so gently.
“If I want you, Mr. Eckert, I’ll let you know.”
Cain has more twists in turn for Joan, and the reader (although many seem to be of Joan’s making–see above re: bailing out strangers sight-unseen). At times, with her child at stake, trapped in an engagement–then marriage–to a man she does not know, far from home, Joan’s struggles become more than melodrama.
Although the book is written as a first-person account, Joan does not reflect far beyond what is in front of her, and Cain sets up a nice source of tension in the opening chapters. Joan never reflects on the night her husband dies, dodging the event in her memory just as she evades questions about the night, and as the novel goes on it becomes unclear if her husband did suffer the foul play she is suspected of.
As King hints in the quote, and Charles Ardai elaborates on in his fascinating afterward about the discover and editing of the manuscript, The Cocktail Waitress is an event for Cain fans, in how it relates to the deceased author’s life. The rich old man, a knowing target for Joan, shares the same ailment that will soon end Cain’s life. The book is set in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where Cain spent his final years.
Like the later work of many writers (Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving come to mind) the pleasure here is not of discovery but in recognition, in the nods to other books the author wrote earlier on. The Cocktail Waitress is an event indeed for James M. Cain fans.
Similar Reads: Raymond Chandler: Farewell, My Lovely; James M Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce; James Lee Burke: The Tin Roof Blowdown.
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]