Editor’s Choice May 2011

The Great Los Angeles Novel

HBO’s Mildred Pierce is based on James M. Cain’s book that has to go down as one of the great failures of American fiction.
Andrew Schwartz/HBO

In November 1931, James M. Cain had a desperate lunch with his agent. Eight months shy of 40, Cain had always been a man somewhat adrift. Born into a genteel Irish-American Maryland family, he had a childhood less than happy (his distant relationship with his parents, he later said, was “one of the blights” of his life). After college, he worked as a state road inspector and a high-school teacher in rural Maryland, but he longed to be an opera singer, so he moved to the big city, Washington, D.C., to take voice lessons, and sold insurance to pay for them. Alas, his mother’s verdict—“You have no voice, no looks, no stage personality. You have some musical sense, but it’s not enough”—proved correct. Broke, he turned to writing. The decision “was no clarion call,” he later said. Compared with a musical career, “writing to me was distinctly a consolation prize.”

For the next 20 years, Cain made his way in a profession in which he displayed vague talent but no distinction. His reporting from the West Virginia coal country moved him to try a novel, but when three drafts made him cringe, he was convinced he was no novelist. He tried the life of a freelance journalist, teaching English composition at a local college to pay the bills. For H. L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, he wrote satirical dialogues, mostly in mock-rural dialect—which read like imitation Ring Lardner. He wrote debunking articles—which read like imitation Mencken. His best work was as an anonymous editorialist for the New York World, where he worked for seven years under Walter Lippmann. When the World was sold, Cain scrambled to become managing editor of The New Yorker, where he was charged with the Sisyphean task of organizing the magazine’s notoriously disorganized hick-sophisticate editor, Harold Ross. Nine months into the job, in November 1931, Cain was begging his agent to wrangle him a gig in Hollywood: with the advent of talkies, the studios were hungry for wordsmiths. By 3 o’clock that same afternoon, Cain had a deal with Paramount for twice his New Yorker salary.

Los Angeles was to utterly change Cain’s fortunes. Not that he succeeded in his new career path: after six months, Paramount dropped his contract. Months later, Columbia finally picked him up (for half his Paramount pay), but he lasted only six weeks. After barely a year in Hollywood, he was once again unemployed and broke. But he had taken to his new home. Though the studios had fired him, his intelligence at assessing scripts impressed his bosses—even the hideous Harry Cohn. For his part, Cain, far from lapsing into the East Coast writer’s unlovely habit of bad-mouthing the picture makers for stifling his imagination, returned the esteem. As he wrote for The American Mercury, “I have never worked any place where courtesy was more in evidence than on a movie lot, or where daily contacts were more pleasant.” He liked the camaraderie of an army of intensely skilled people working on tight production schedules at breakneck speed. Cain wanted to succeed at writing for the pictures; he had a jaundiced admiration of moviemaking, and studied it assiduously to comprehend how the studios, shot by shot, sequence by sequence, created a new type of brisk and efficient storytelling. Countless writers have blamed Hollywood for ruining them creatively. Its impact on Cain was just the opposite. After all, there’s nothing like writing for the pictures to impose the discipline of showing, not telling. And the movies taught Cain a new style that suited him—a style that prized tautness, compression, and a cool point of view.

If Cain’s understanding of the literary value of picture making was rare for a writer, even more so was his appreciation of his new surroundings. Just as hipsters today use white pejoratively, denoting sterile, bland, non-ethnic suburbia, so sophisticates in Cain’s day enjoyed skewering Los Angeles—America’s whitest, most Protestant, most bourgeois big city—as an artificial tropic teeming with displaced rubes, an opinion Frank Lloyd Wright neatly encapsulated in his contemptuous remark, “It is as if you tipped the U.S. up, so that all the commonplace people slid down to Southern California.” So conditioned, writer after writer churned out the same derisive commentary on Los Angeles. Cain, though, saw the place with fresh eyes—and perhaps more important, heard it with fresh ears.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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