Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Horses Always Shoot Twice

Over the holidays, I took a long ride into noir country with two depression era classics.

The first was James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Despite Cain's multitude of successful conversions from print to screen, he's never enjoyed the household recognition of a Chandler or a Hammet. There's a sort of cosmic irony that Chandler, who was largely a washout working as a Hollywood screenwriter, had his greatest success adapting Postman for the screen when he despised Cain's writing. (The book would be adapted again for the screen in 1981 by no less than David Mamet.) Chandler described writers like Cain as, "Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way."

I was astounded by the total lack of Postmen in this book.
The story concerns a drifter, Frank Chambers, who happens into a restaurant owned by Nick Papadakis. Frank's trying to figure out how to get out of paying the check when the friendly Greek offers him work, which begins Frank's affair with Nick's wife, Cora.  The liaison leads to the pair thinking of murder to get Nick out of the way and sends them into a spiraling sinkhole of lust and mistrust.   I didn't share Chandler's disdain toward Cain's writing.  I found the story a compelling study of two people who can't help from digging further and further into their sins anymore than they can start up this new fantasy life they expected to live together.   However, once again, Postman represents one of those seminal works that have been hashed and rehashed so many times over the years that much of its original punch has been dulled. The characterizations, the vintage California setting and some of the unique aspects (the puma kitten, for instance) manage to rescue it from the letdown feeling of "Here we go again."

My second book had very little about it that felt all too familiar.

Horace McCoy, a contemporary of Cain's, also ended up working as a screenwriter after failing to make it as an actor and holding a string of different jobs living in Los Angeles. One of those jobs, a bouncer at the Santa Monica Pier, led to his writing the surreal and despondent They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935).

The "startling affair" must be in another book that I didn't read...
Horses is the tale of Robert Syverten and Gloria Beatty, two young struggling actors in Depression-era Hollywood who enter a dance marathon in hopes of winning some cash to tide them over until they get a break. The novel opens with Robert, who narrates, telling us that Gloria is dead and that he is about to be sentenced for the murder. Then, the novel takes us back to their meeting and onto and through the strain and spectacle of the marathon with its strange cast of characters en route to Gloria's murder. While the book was largely a failure in the US, it saw popularity within existentialist circles in France, and it's easy to see why.  Though certainly not as alien as a work like Camus' The Stranger, Horses still holds that similar feeling of a character entering a disjointed nightmare of his own choices.  While I can't call it an enjoyable read, I tore through it at a breakneck pace and found it to be a sad study of humanity in extremity, a novel as relevant in this economically difficult time period as it was in the 1930's.