Fiction: “The Cocktail Waitress” by James M. Cain

cocktail waitressSince it has been at least two months since I finished this book, I couldn’t tell you what made me decide to read it. Most likely just the fact that it existed in my house was enough. Also, the cover promised there would be sex and/or violence (sex in my violence, maybe?) and I am so far not over The Mysteries of Udolpho that, even now, I am still reading books chock-full of either sex and/or violence.

Let me begin by proclaiming the awesomeness of Hard Case Crime, the publisher of this book. Firstly, I have yet to find a title that I’ve read that I haven’t enjoyed. Granted, while I’ve purchased many, I’ve only read, like, three. My bad. I intend to fix that in the future. (but it’s kind of awkward to read a book with that cover in a communal break room; I know and appreciate that it’s part of the genre and I really like the artwork that goes onto these covers, but still).

Not only does Hard Case Crime republish previously-published works, or solicit new pulpy works from established authors (see: The Colorado Kid by Stephen King), but they also seek out lost works from famous authors. They’ve also recently produced a collection of pulp novels Michael Crichton wrote when he was putting himself through med school, so those will be awesome. (note to self: read Jurassic Park at some point. preferably before watching Jurassic Park.) And The Cocktail Waitress was a search and rescue mission, of sorts, for Hard Case Crime and the editor-in-chief, Charles Ardai.

Mr. Ardai had heard rumors of Cain’s lost manuscript for his final novel, and through the magical network of editors and publishers, was able to get all the manuscripts for The Cocktail Waitress. Because Mr. Cain must have also taken that one creative writing course I took in college, wherein the professor gave me only one piece of advice (because I swear, the rest of his efforts was stealing the ideas of his students to re-purpose in his own writing): never throw your drafts away — or, in the case of today’s technology, write over them. While your plot may end up differing greatly from your first imagining, a line of dialogue or a description that you wrote in that first draft may now fit perfectly in this third or fourth. Or maybe there’s a different route you can take when you re-read that first draft three years later and realize that actually, the main character of the book should really have been that chick in the corner, not the main dude. Basically, when Mr. Ardai opened the box of manuscript, he found … twelve. In various stages of completion.

And if that doesn’t sound like the best type of puzzle, I’m not sure we can still be friends. Okay, yes, we can still be friends, but you’re not allowed to make fun of my nerdiness. I mean, a box full of different manuscripts for the same story? and now he gets to put them together to make the best version of that story possible?! It’s like being an obtainer of rare antiquities, but for books! And instead of being put into a museum at the end of it, the book gets published and able to be shared with the world!

That right there? Dream job. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I love my current job. I love it a lot. As I said to my supervisor this very morning, “I don’t like waking up in the morning, because that’s because I’m not now, nor will I ever be, a morning person. But when I’m finally awake and get to work, I’m ecstatic, because I love my job.” As a reward for my everlasting love, I get to help out with a Gordian Knot of rather (appropriate) epic proportions, and I’m looking forward to it.

But if someone were to offer me a second job doing some freelance editing? I wouldn’t quit my primary, benefits-giving job, but I would edit the shit out of your novel. Just sayin’. Always available.

I got all that information on the provenance of the manuscript from the afterword of the novel Mr. Ardai gave us. If you’re going to pull a Harry Burns and read the afterword first, I’d recommend reading up to the final page. Do not read the last page of the afterword. If you do, you may be spoiled for the ending, and — as I will discuss in a second — YOU DON’T WANT TO SPOIL THE ENDING.

In many ways, The Cocktail Waitress is similar to Mr. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce: The titular (not a pun, although – yes, it was – sorry) Cocktail Waitress is Joan Medford, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral. Her alcoholic, abusive husband just drove himself into a brick wall, leaving her widowed. She sends her son (almost against her will) to live with her sister-in-law, until she can find a job to support the both of them. Almost immediately, she gets a job as a chimney sweep.

I’m kidding! She gets a job as a cocktail waitress! On her first night, she meets Earl K. White, an older widower himself who takes a shine to Mrs. Medford. Joan realizes that if she plays her cards right, she could get Earl to fall in love with her and ask her to marry him, and then all of her problems would be solved – at least, financially-speaking. There’s still the fact that her sister-in-law and a rookie cop think that she spiked hubby’s final drink. There’s also the handsome Tom Barclay, who Joan has really fallen for. But Tom can’t provide for her and her boy, so when the opportunity presents itself, she does indeed become Mrs. White.

Now, here’s the problem with marrying Earl: he has a heart condition, and he doesn’t dare to have sex with Joan because if he did, the blood pressure and excitement would actually kill him. And that actually suits Joan fine, because she loves him Platonically and not sexually, because apparently, he’s old. But then he finds a doctor who has a radical cure, and when he starts taking it he starts feeling better and his stamina improves, but Joan wants him to test himself out on masseuses first.

Well, in the middle of such a session, Earl drops dead of a heart attack. And now Joan is a widow again. And it’s all starting to seem rather suspicious.

Here’s the thing with The Cocktail Waitress: unlike in Mildred Pierce, this story is told from the first-person perspective, that of Joan. So Joan is telling us the story. And there are parts in the narration where we’re told she is actually telling us her story by recording herself telling us the story, so it’s not like Philip Marlowe telling us what’s happening. But, unlike Philip Marlowe, or Nick Carroway, the more we read The Cocktail Waitress, the more unsure we become as to whether Joan is a reliable narrator. She’ll be telling us something and then she’ll say something like, “I’m not sure how it happened, but …” And things just … have a way of falling into place. And then you remember that there’s one character in every noir novel: the femme fatale. In The Cocktail Waitress, our femme fatale also happens to be our narrator.

The final thing I loved about The Cocktail Waitress was dramatic irony. Remember, dramatic irony is my favorite type of irony, and that’s why I’m begging you – if you read the book, do not look ahead. I’ve already said too much, really. But The Cocktail Waitress is one of the few novels I’ve seen where the audience knows how something’s going to end because of History, and not because of actual plot machinations. The last three paragraphs are a gut-punch, and it’s all due to dramatic irony.

I admire Mr. Ardai and the team at Hard Case Crime for bringing this book into the world, and as a consequence, I did order The Postman Always Rings Twice from Amazon. I’ll eventually complete my James M. Cain canon, because between this and Mildred Pierce, he is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine. Nice and dark, and twisted, with not a single unflawed character among them.

Grade for The Cocktail Waitress: 4 stars


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