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.

After a year in Los Angeles, Cain wrote an article, “Paradise,” for The American Mercury, a piece that he always said was the best he’d ever written and that Mencken judged correctly as “the first really good article on California that has ever been done.” Cain acknowledged all of Southern California’s wacky shortcomings, its indifferent restaurants, and its un-urbane urban life, but he took in the place with a discerning appreciation. To start, he observed precisely and without prejudice its topography, flora, climate, and above all, light. Cain, a musical connoisseur, understood that the region’s high-minded WASPs had actually developed a refined musical culture (one rooted in the tradition of ambitious church-based choral music). He grasped that the lower-middle-class former midwesterners who defined the place may have engaged in flimsy occupations, but they offered Los Angeles’s relatively few indigents “genuinely humane treatment,” and they excelled at providing “things that require an effective communal effort”—roads (a subject on which Cain, thanks to his pre-writing life, was an expert), recreational facilities (he rightly marveled at the number of public tennis courts; thousands of them were built in the 1930s), and, especially, public schools, which he rated the best in the country (as a family man whose stepchildren thrived in their new home, Cain recognized certain attributes, such as “a cleanliness hardly to be matched elsewhere,” that were perhaps lost on more-footloose writers).

The product of all this, Cain asserted, was the Southern California common man, who has “an uncommonly high level of education” and “addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile.” Cain, the former English teacher who contested points of usage with the erudite Lippmann, had an astute ear, and trumpeted the “excellent English” and superb pronunciation he found ubiquitous in the region. “The populace seem to be on familiar terms with most of the words in the language”; the natives’ most conspicuous quality, he said, was that they were “too articulate to seem plausible.”

Cain absorbed that speech—“my ear had put this on wax,” as he retrospectively put it. And that liberated him. In his previous, awkward fictional efforts, Cain’s characters had been regular folks in the East: village Babbitts, Eastern Shore lowlifes, denizens of seaside boardinghouses. Because he was a committed realist who wrote largely in the first person, his faithful rendition of their vagueness and inarticulateness stunted their thoughts and sensibility. But in Los Angeles, Cain’s characters—drifters, housewives, housing developers, waitresses, two-bit lawyers, insurance salesmen—could through their dialogue and narration convey both clarity and complexity. By replacing verbosity with plain speaking, Cain allowed his characters to express a direct, astringent sensibility. L.A.’s major industry had given him a new storytelling technique; and in Los Angeles talk, Cain recalled, he found “the medium I could use to write novels.”

Although he had no job to keep him there, Cain stayed. At the nadir of the Depression, middle-aged, washed up in the newspaper business, Cain wrote a novel in six months. He opened The Postman Always Rings Twice with what has become one of the most famous first sentences in American fiction: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” From there, the tale of lust and murder in Southern California hurtled forward with unfaltering momentum. Tight, oblique, and knowing, written in an artful arrangement of colloquialisms, terse understatement, detached description, and casually precise vernacular, the book established a new style (Edmund Wilson would put Cain at the head of the list of hard-boiled West Coast writers he dubbed “The Boys in the Back Room”). Cain got everything he wanted, all at once. An immediate best seller, the book has remained in print for 77 years. It would inspire Camus’ The Stranger and Visconti’s Ossessione. Doubtless more important for Cain, it brought Hollywood calling. The book sold to MGM, and convinced the studios that this most cinematic of novelists could write for the pictures. In fact he never could—even though in his lifetime nine of his works of fiction were made into movies (and of course, the adaptation of his Double Indemnity, screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, remains one of the best American movies ever made), Cain’s screenwriting credits, all shared, add up to three pictures. But he made himself into a journeyman script doctor, and the studios provided him with a more or less steady cash flow until Cain returned to the East (to Maryland, “the churlish little state from which I fled”), in 1948. That was a move he came to rue: although his career as a novelist staggered into the 1970s, Cain had written all his lasting fiction, as the critic Robert Polito notes, in the 17 years he lived in Los Angeles.

That place made Cain into a writer, and he repaid the favor. Southern California has been blessed with a host of great nonfiction chroniclers—Carey McWilliams, Reyner Banham, and Joan Didion among them. But it has been rendered in very little great fiction. Cain’s three novels of Depression-era Los Angeles—Postman (1934), Double Indemnity (published serially in 1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941)—top the list. The first two—compressed, fast-paced—depict the city keenly but elliptically. In Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the great Los Angeles novel, and although the world it evokes is all but lost, it’s a world that remains in the DNA of the place.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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