James Cain is a member of the ‘big 3’ of crime fiction (alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), and when I heard that this previously unpublished piece was being released I was thrilled beyond reason. One of the first noir crime fiction novels that I ever loved was The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Cocktail Waitress doesn’t fail in any aspect; especially in creating a compelling narrative fraught with desire and suspense. Reading a novel such as this, one that is unearthed from a forgotten past, is much like opening a time-capsule. We’ve found a lost work from a master, lets give it the respect it deserves.
The Cocktail Waitress begins casket-side, at the funeral of Joan Medford’s late alcoholic husband. All eyes are fixed upon her grief, searching for some quiver in her facade, for some sign that would betray her mourning as counterfeit. Joan isn’t sorry he’s dead, but she’s swallowing hard realities about her provider being gone. Her sister-in-law wants to take her son, the bank wants to foreclose on her house, and she’s caught in a game of high stakes give-and-take with every man she meets. Her story is that of a femme fatale stripped of glamour– a white-knuckled grasping for a better life. Joan painfully explores her boundaries as she sacrifices everything for her son’s future.
“I’m trying to tell it as it was, not leaving anything out that matters, or putting anything in that isn’t true. So, I was two-faced and now I admit it. But, if you’re a woman, how about you, what would you have done? If you had exactly been in my shoes, with this opportunity offered you and that little boy to think of, I think you’d have done what I did.”
James Cain has delivered beautiful vintage noir from beyond the grave; the final genuine article of a bygone era.
1) The Seedy Underworld
The Cocktail Waitress delivers in expected ways: the settings ripped straight from the pulps– dimly lit lounges, skin-clubs of ill repute, and clamshell driveways wrapping luxurious estates.
“There are livings that don’t require you to dress like…a tramp.”
“Find me one that’ll have me and I’ll apply. In the meantime, I’m earning good money and all I’m doing for it is bringing people drinks and a bit of food, and a smile to go with them.”
“Might as well have nothing on but that smile.”
2) The Anti-Hero
Joan Medford is a fantastic narrator. She has a sincerity that is endearing and a candor that grounds the entire novel in poignant reality. Relatively minor daily acts are spellbinding in her voice, because her desperation lends them unmistakable gravitas. Only when I began to doubt her reliability did the full impact of her character resonate– unsettling implications abound when the trustworthiness of the narrator is called into question.
3) The Femme Fatale
Is Joan a femme fatale? I suppose it’s left to the reader to decide. As she recites her story, promising to hold nothing back, explaining her desire to set the record straight once and for all, you cannot help but be taken in. This desperate woman who has experienced such hardship plays with your sympathies– You want to trust her. You pull for her throughout the novel because she’s the hero right?
“Always the same charge, the one Ethel flung at me of being a femme fatale who knew ways of killing a husband so slick they couldn’t be proved.”
Wonderful and horrifying examples of misogyny abound in the novel– Joan understands the roles she must play in the male dominated world she inhabits. She adopts compromising and frequently fraudulent characteristics in order to appease powerful men in her life, ultimately to profit from them. Joan dances to their tune until she can change the song.
Joan reveals very early on that the entire purpose of her story is the hope that it will redeem her good name. Scandal mounts from the first page to the last, ever more incriminating– each detail more harrying than the last. As a reader, we’re left with a mouthful of uncomfortable redemption; difficult to swallow.
Eroticism can quickly feel forced in the clumsy grip of a novice author– especially when it’s a male author attempting to define a female character’s sexuality. But James Cain seems to dodge these potential pitfalls, delivering a character that feels both authentic and sexually empowered. I never felt that Joan was pandering to the male readers of her story– I felt that she was allowing us a private peek into her most guarded secrets. Her candor delivered a level of eroticism not found in enough of the noir genre.
“Not just being good looking and young but having a presence to him, a scent almost, that took something loose inside a woman and coiled it up tight.”
7) Loss of Innocence
As Joan’s situation becomes increasingly dire, and as she realizes the desperate sacrifices she must make, this theme of lost innocence becomes more pronounced. Mrs. Medford’s innocence doesn’t vanish all at once, its evaporated by the heat of tribulation.
8 ) Smoke
Solace in smoke. Sometimes the only relief may be found in indulgence. The Cocktail Waitress is a smoke full lounge, burping smoke as the front door bleeds patrons out into the night.
“You learn, often the hard way, that satisfying a craving is no guarantee you end up satisfied in the long run.”
Possibly the most pronounced theme of emasculation I have read in months, The Cocktail Waitress features a main character named Ernest White III. Ernest is a rich older fellow who has developed powerful feelings for Joan. We learn that he has angina, a rare heart condition that makes any form of strenuous activity potentially deadly. Particularly, we learn that if he were to have sex he would die. Mr. White is completely emasculated by his condition– effectively neutered by his inability to perform as a normal man.
I was enchanted by The Cocktail Waitress. I felt unusually compelled to read, and I devoured page after page of Joan’s wounded narration. Mr. Cain proves yet again that he deserves every distinction he has earned in the genre over the last 60 years. Get your own copy here.