Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice

American Stories #1: The Postman Always Rings Twice

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today.

The opening sentence of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”—is my favorite first line of any novel, and I’ve written about it here before. Yet when you look more closely at the paragraph in which it appears, you find that what Tom Wolfe praised as the “momentum” of Cain’s style is carrying you past some significant material. Here’s how it reads in full:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Cain described his narrator, Frank, as “a hobo with good grammar,” but he’s also a white man who passes easily back and forth across the border between Mexico and southern California. When he meets Cora, the wife of the doomed gas station owner Nick Papadakis, he drops a casual reference to “you people,” prompting her to shoot back: “You think I’m Mex…Well, get this. I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are.” But Frank sees to the bottom of her indignation at once: “It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.”

Yet it’s Nick Papadakis, whom Frank always calls “the Greek,” who somehow emerges as the book’s most memorable creation—he may be the most vivid murder victim in all of crime fiction—and Cain’s ability to make him real while channeling everything that we know about him through the narrator’s contempt is an act of immense technical skill. Nick is also the figure in whom the story’s secret theme comes most clearly into view. In order to be alone with Cora, Frank tricks Nick into going into town to buy a new neon sign, and he comes back with a resplendent declaration of love for his adoptive land: “It had a Greek flag and an American flag, and a hand shaking hands…It was all in red, white and blue.” Later, after Nick has unknowingly survived a botched attempt on his life, he proudly shows Frank his scrapbook: “He had inked in the curlicues, and then colored it with red, white and blue. Over the naturalization certificate, he had a couple of American flags, and an eagle.” It isn’t the murderous couple’s shared lust, but Cora’s resentment toward her immigrant husband, that really drives the story, and it spills out in her bitter words to Frank: “Do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parts printed on the back…while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts?” It still rings uncomfortably true today, and it echoed in the imagination of Cain’s most unlikely imitator. As Alice Kaplan writes in Looking for The Stranger:

When [Albert] Camus said The Postman Always Rings Twice inspired The Stranger, he didn’t go into detail. It is easy to imagine that when he observed the effect Cain got by using “the Greek” in place of a proper name, he realized he could create a similar effect by calling the murder victim in his own novel “the Arab.”

The poetry of insurance

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Wallace Stevens

If you know only one fact about the poet Wallace Stevens, it’s that he spent most of his career working as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s arguably the most famous literary day job of the twentieth century, and the contrast between what the critic Peter Schjeldahl recently called “Stevens’s seraphic art and his plodding life” tends to stick in our minds more than, say, T.S. Eliot’s stint at Lloyd’s Bank or Henry Miller’s years as a personnel manager at Western Union. In part, this is because Stevens simply stayed at his job for longer and rose higher in its ranks even after he had become the most acclaimed poet of his generation. (The story goes that he was offered a faculty position at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, but he turned it down because it would have meant giving up his position at the firm.) It’s also a reflection of how we see the insurance business, which seems like an industry suited more for painstaking drudges than for the kind of visionary personalities that we associate with poetry—although every good poet also has to be a great bookkeeper. If we want to drill down even further, we could say that there’s something inherently unpoetic about the methods of insurance itself: it deals with human beings in the aggregate, as a statistical abstraction without a face, while poetry is naturally concerned with the individual, the unquantifiable, and the unexpected.

But we can also draw a clear line between Stevens’s life at the office and the development of his poetry. In his review in The New Yorker of Paul Mariani’s new biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, Schjeldahl notes that the book “ignores the details of Stevens’s day job, probably as being too mundane to merit attention.” Yet Schjeldahl does his best to invest them with meaning, in an eloquent paragraph that has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it:

Stevens’s specialties, surety and fidelity, turn profits from cautiously optimistic bets on human nature. (Surety covers defaulted loans and fidelity employee malfeasance.) Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful. The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity.

I like this insight a lot, because there’s something to be said for a conception of poetry as an ongoing act of risk management. A rational artist wants to take on as much risk as he or she possibly can, because high risk goes with high return in art as much as it does in other kinds of investment—but only if you can live with it. If you’ve miscalculated your tolerance for volatility, as many aspiring artists do, you’re more likely to go out of business.

James M. Cain

The insurance industry also seems like a good place for a writer to learn something about the complex ways in which institutions and impersonal systems interact with human nature. Kafka’s job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institution, for instance, clearly played a crucial role in the development of his vision, and far more explicitly than it did with Stevens. But my favorite example comes from another singular voice in American letters: the novelist James M. Cain, who sold insurance for the General Accident Company in Washington D.C. He seems to have only worked there for a short time, but that’s interesting in itself—he repeatedly returned to the subject in his fiction, which implies that he regarded it as a great source of material. It provides a central part of the plot of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which are fables, in essence, about the collision of messy emotions with the clinical, depersonalized logic of the insurance business. In the former, it leads to a surprise twist that makes nonsense of the violence that came before it; in the latter, it’s a plan for the perfect crime, conceived by a crooked insurance agent, that is quickly undermined by such basic, uncontrollable emotions as greed and lust. And Cain correctly realized that the intersection between insurance and human desire was the perfect territory for noir, which is often about the contrast between what we think we can plan and what the unfair universe really has in store for us.

That’s true of poetry, too. It’s traditionally the most exacting and precise of literary forms, but it puts itself in service of emotions and ideas that resist understanding and explanation, which is another form of calculated risk. The works of a poet like Shakespeare, who was a shrewd businessman in his own right, are notable for the way in which they seem to combine total specificity of detail with oracular opacity, a combination that can only arise from an artist who knows how to surrender control while retaining enough of it to bring the work to a conclusion. A career in insurance provides one way of thinking about such problems, as long as the poet can keep the core of his spirit intact. As the poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote:

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away. So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

A poet, in short, succeeds by learning how to manage many small instances of failure, which is the definition of insurance. And Kooser would know—because he worked in insurance, too.

Keeping it short

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Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

Noir and the limits of control

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Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray in The Killing

“The curious task of economics,” Friedrich Hayek writes, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” You could say much the same thing about noir. The classic film noir, as well as its counterpart in fiction, is ultimately about the limits of control: its protagonists are generally tough, competent, and driven, but they’re brought up against an unfair universe that seems determined to unravel their perfect heist, getaway, or murder. It’s a sharp contrast to the kind of international thriller I’ve found myself writing, which ever since the time of Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth has been defined by a cult of competence. In a well-constructed suspense novel, it’s often the smartest and most capable character who wins, and the hero is frequently defined by his intelligence and skill—possibly because he tends to be so amoral in other ways. The men and women in film noir may be equally smart and tenacious, but that doesn’t always change their fate.

The tension between human control and what the universe really has in mind for us is baked into noir itself, which was often the product of smart writers and directors hedged in by the studio system. It’s often been noted that the classic film noir was created by a reaction against constraints: shadows and minimal lighting are used, as they were in Citizen Kane, to disguise cheap or incomplete sets, while shooting at night is a way of dealing with a compressed production schedule. You also see it in the kinds of plots to which it repeatedly returns. If an A-list picture is sold by a star, a B movie is sold by a poster, title, and tagline, usually involving a girl with a gun. If there’s a place where pulp fiction intersects with noir, it’s on the paperback cover, which tells us precisely what kind of story to expect. Or so we think. In reality, the truth is more complicated, and part of the reason noir indulges in such convoluted plots—the flashbacks, the impersonations, the returns from the dead—is to push against these conventions in the only way it can.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

But if the elaboration of the plot is usually complicated, the ending tends to be brutally simple. There’s no better example than Chinatown. Robert Towne spins a deliciously complicated story, and although I’ve seen the movie countless times, I don’t think I could accurately describe it in its details. Yet it comes down to very simple themes—murder, greed, incest—and ends in a way that makes nonsense of Towne’s beautiful script. As Towne himself says:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending…that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

And it’s only appropriate that the cruelest of all endings should have been imposed on the story after the fact by a director whose own life became so saturated with guilt.

The ironic resolution isn’t confined to film, of course, and it reaches its height in novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Yet there’s also a sense in which the constraints of Hollywood itself encouraged a peculiarly tragic view of life. The Hays Code made it impossible for crime to go unpunished, and when a movie gives us a hero of great shrewdness and ability whose motives are less than pure, when he’s inevitably required to fail, it’s often the result of some cruel, meaningless trick. This has sometimes been taken as a sign of contempt by the filmmakers toward the limitations that the code imposed, but it also reflects a deeper understanding of how useless our most ingenious plans can be.  My own favorite example is the end of The Killing, in which a meticulously plotted heist is foiled by a little dog on the airport tarmac. It’s arbitrary, unfair, and frustrating, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in Sterling Hayden’s final line: “Eh, what’s the difference?”

Readers in Chicago are invited to attend the panel “The Lure of Noir” at the annual Printers Row Lit Fest at 4:00 pm on Saturday, in which I’ll be discussing the subject with novelists Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and moderator Robert Goldsborough. More details can be found here.

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon…”

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Now that I’ve already looked at the problem of endings in possibly excessive detail, it’s time to turn to the even greater challenge of beginnings. The first sentence of a novel is, obviously, the most visible; it’s under the maximum amount of pressure to be interesting and graceful; and it can be fetishized and scrutinized out of all proportion to its actual importance. As a result, many first sentences have an air of desperation. (American Book Review’s list of the hundred “best” first sentences, read consecutively, makes for oddly depressing reading.) That said, I can only begin by quoting my own favorite opening, from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

No desperation there—just a clean headlong plunge into story. I don’t want to analyze this opening too much, except to say that it beautifully exemplifies the quality of momentum that Tom Wolfe, among others, has praised in Cain’s work: no other novelist has ever been faster at coming out of his corner. Cain was the most impressive stylist in the history of the suspense form—even Edmund Wilson, no fan of the genre, was an admirer of Cain—and he did it with language that was clean, direct, and surprisingly subtle. (And the wording is more nuanced than it looks. Changing “hay truck” to “fruit truck,” for instance, would alter the entire mood of the opening.)

The crucial quality of an opening sentence or paragraph, of course, is that it keeps the reader going. Most writers try to do this with action, often violent or melodramatic, but it can also be done with character, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does in The Sign of the Four:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Any story that begins with the words “Sherlock Holmes…” is interesting in itself, so it’s useful to note that this is only the second Holmes novel ever published, written when Conan Doyle was barely thirty, but already a master at seizing the reader’s attention. (Perhaps too much of a master: his depiction of Holmes using cocaine was still controversial enough, nearly a century later, that the above paragraph was cut entirely from The Boy’s Sherlock Holmes, which was the edition I read growing up.)

The examples I’ve mentioned so far come from genre novels, but even a literary novel with a more leisurely pace benefits from a good, clean opening. For sheer magic and confidence, it’s hard to top the first sentence of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale:

There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.

But not every great novel has a great opening sentence. It’s difficult to imagine a more snooze-inducing opening line than this one:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.

This is from The Once and Future King, and I can only assure you that it gets a lot better from there. (It’s likely that T.H. White was deliberately trying to convey an air of boredom in the first sentence, in order to contrast the young Arthur’s conventional schooling with his much more exciting educational experiences to come. This, needless to say, is a strategy that most novelists would be advised to avoid, at least at first.)

What I’ve said before about closing sentences applies equally well to their opening counterparts: there are as many different kinds as there are novels. If there’s one rule that I’d encourage writers to follow, though, it’s not to try too hard. A novel isn’t a newspaper article; not every relevant detail of time, place, and circumstance needs to be crammed into the first sentence. Many suspense novelists, in particular, seem so terrified that the reader will read the first sentence and nothing else that they overload their openings like a fishing line strung with multiple flies. The result is often a sentence like this:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

This particular opening, with its infamous “renowned curator,” has been so thoroughly eviscerated elsewhere (notably here and here) that no further commentary would seem necessary. And yet the sentence does work: millions of people, for better or worse, kept reading. Which suggests, as I’ve already said, that it’s hard to lay down any definitive rules, only examples. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be looking at the openings of some of my own stories, and talking about what at least one writer is thinking when he stares at that first, terrifyingly blank page.

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