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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Fiction: “Money Shot” by Christa Faust

Money Shot is another title from the Hard Case Crime publishing imprint, and I am making it one of my life’s goals to read all of their titles. I’ve enjoyed every title I’ve read so far — all three of them; each one has had just the right blend of violence, sex, and humor that, in this case, was the perfect palate cleanser to all of the non-fiction books I’ve been reading over the past two months.

Important Fun Fact!: Christa Faust was the first female author published by Hard Case Crime. And after reading Money Shot, I want to write like her, because she is awesome.

The story follows Angel Dare, former queen of the porn industry. She has “retired” from video, but is still in the industry by being an agent for women who are in or joining the industry: arranging shoots, dancing, that sort of thing. One day, she gets a call from her mentor to do “one last shoot,” and out of fondness she goes to the location. Of course, Admiral Ackbar don’t have nothing on me, and I’m still a little surprised that Angel was able to walk right into what turned out to be A TRAP, because upon arrival she gets beaten up, tied up to a bed, raped, and asked about a briefcase of money.

Turns out, Angel was around the day the girl the bad guys are looking for lost a briefcase full of money, and the bad guys want to know what Angel did with it. When she admits she doesn’t know, they toss her in a trunk and shoot through the trunk, hoping to kill her. Lucky for the story, she survives, and now she’s on a mission of vengeance: find the briefcase before the bad guys do, and — in the spirit of my two favorite vigilantes — kill ’em all.

She teams up with a security guard from her building, known solely as Malloy. There’s some interesting tension between the two characters, as Angel doesn’t want to rely on him for support, but recognizes that for the most part, she can’t go on this journey by herself. I will admit the way the relationship resolved itself was a little bit unfulfilling, but it makes sense in the story for how it happened.

I liked the story — there’s plenty of violence, and also, plenty of fun porn talk. But most importantly, and I breezed through it in, like, four days, which was awesome, compared to the three weeks it took me to read the last 200-page book I read. Not only would I read it again in the future, I’m also looking forward to the sequel, Choke Hold. But seeing as how this year I’m not buying any books (Christopher Moore’s Sacre Blue excepting), that one will probably have to wait.

Grade for Money Shot: 3 stars

Fiction: “The Corpse Wore Pasties” by Jonny Porkpie

Um, dudes — did you see the title? a), How could I not pick this up and b), how has no one else heard of this book? It’s called The Corpse Wore Pasties.

So, uh, the plot, if you so care: Jonny Porkpie – both the author and the narrator – is a master of ceremonies of burlesque shows in New York City. In fact, he calls himself “The Mayor of Burlesque,” and there’s a whole thing in the first third of the book where he describes the difference between burlesque and stripping. Burlesque is all about wit and humor, whereas stripping is just taking clothes off to music. Burlesque I can get behind. (That’s what she said.)

ANYWAY. Jonny’s MC-ing at this burlesque show with five female stars of burlesque (I swear I am not making these names up): Angelina Blood, a Goth chick; Eva Desire; Jillian Knockers; Brioche a Tete; and Cherries Jubilee. And then a sixth woman comes in: Victoria Vice, a notorious plagiarist. She switches her spot in the lineup with one of the other women so she goes on second, and it turns out that she has managed to plagiarize Angelina’s entire act, down to the fake death by poison on stage.

Only, uh, that fake death? Not so fake. And since Jonny, in his role of MC/stage-manager was the one who handed Victoria the bottle of ‘poison,’ he is the number one suspect. So the rest of the book is his story in trying to find out who killed Victoria and why.

This book is (probably) like burlesque itself: tawdry, witty, humorous, and manages to show just enough to be titillating but not enough to be considered explicit or pornog– midwestern philosophy. Jonny is a reliable narrator, and his way of describing people and incidents is refreshing:

Jillian Knockers is a legend in the annals of bump and grind. First of all, she’s not called “Knockers” for nothing. On the contrary, she’s called “Knockers” for two things. [18]

Brioche’s acts are unlike anything else in the business — they’re more along the lines of performance art, though that’s not exactly the right description either. Because when I say “performance art,” you’re probably thinking about that excruciating thing you had to sit through for five hours when your college roommate decided to “explore the world of live theatrical creation.” [22]

Oh my God — I saw that play! It was about Nazis and robots and then someone ended up gay, right? And the lighting was horrible!

Whether you’d like to admit it or not, Porkpie does have some similarities to a hero of mine: Indiana Jones. Both are witty, both fight for justice; both have easily recognizable hats.

A sudden breeze came up off the water, blowing my porkpie off my head. I made a grab for it and missed. The hat bounced back down the bridge, towards Manhattan, towards my pursuers.

I stopped. I turned around.

I like that hat. [64-65]

I feel that I need to make the distinction: Jonny Porkpie is named for his hat.

Porkpie also has a love of language (and a strong grasp of English literature) based on these two passages:

“You said you were going to strangle them all, starting with Victoria.”

“Well, I didn’t mean it literally, you jackass,” yelled Cherries.

“I’m not sure there’s such a thing as metaphorical strangulation.” [67]

“… Then she walks into that goddamn bar last night. I got out of her life, she could at least have the decency to stay out of mine. But no. She can’t just let it go. She has to keep shoving it — In! My! Face!”

Eva, I had to assume, had some classical theater training — Shakespearean, most likely — that was informing her current performance. How else could one explain that she was (as Hamlet had suggested) suiting the action to her words, the words to her action? [81]

To go back to college one last time:

On the other hand, if anyone would have a working knowledge of obscure Nordic playwrights, it was Brioche. My best course was probably to try to play along. When the need arises, I can shovel it with the best of them. It got me through college. [121]

And I’d like to add my motto: Never underestimate the power of bullshit. It truly did get me through college. I swear, if I ever do get a tattoo, I have a feeling that that phrase is in the top ten of choices.

What … not really struck me as interesting, but a touch that I loved, was that Jonny Porkpie is married. I have to admit: I don’t regularly think of burlesque actresses or strippers, but when I do, I never think that they’re married. Well, Jonny is married to a fellow burlesque performer, and if I were to give awards for the best named characters of the year, this would be no contest: Nasty Canasta. I would like to again refer you to the above paragraph where I said that I swear I am not making any of this up.

Nasty also has a swell sense of humor:

“An excellent disguise,” Nasty continued, “for a man on the run. Very subtle. The call goes out over the police radio: ‘Be on the lookout for a suspect named Jonny Porkpie.’ ‘But how will we recognize him?’ says our hapless officer. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ the radio replies, ‘maybe look for the guy wearing a porkpie hat.'” [171]

As for this as a member of the pulp fiction genre: hell yeah. The wit is sparkling, the women are scantily clad, and while there weren’t guns or too much violence, it’s a gritty world the author describes. This was an excellent romp through the seedy underbelly of the bump and grind world.

Grade for The Corpse Wore Pasties: 3 stars.

Fiction: “The Dead Man’s Brother” by Roger Zelazny

Well.  Normally, I’d post a picture of the book cover, but the uploading isn’t working.  So instead: click this link, and you’ll be sent to the Hard Case Crime bio of the book.

You may remember this title from my reading pile last year. I picked it up again when I got back from Providence, and this time, I was able to keep my head down and power through it. In a week.

Overall, it wasn’t half bad.

The Dead Man’s Brother is a title from Hard Case Crime imprint, a Harlequin-like imprint specializing in pulp fiction. Some titles are newly-written; some are never-before-published pulp fiction (Dead Man’s Brother was never published); and some are reprints of classic pulp titles. Why did I all of a sudden get an interest in pulp fiction? I blame two things: Robert Downey, Jr., and his movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

This isn’t a place to review movies, but if you like crime, comedy, and Robert Downey Jr. swearing a lot, go watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s set up like an old pulp fiction novel, but it’s completely modern. RDJ narrates with his usual, fast-talking self-deprecating style, Val Kilmer plays a gay private detective, and Michelle Monaghan plays ‘the girl,’ who has a fascination with the Johnny Gossamer novels that the movie plays off.

Unfortunately for me, Johnny Gossamer was a made-up series. But I went out and picked up a few titles from the Hard Case Crime imprint, and Dead Man’s Brother was the first one I picked up to actually read.

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