ALAND OF SHIFTLESS hobos, of freight train yards and greasy roadside lunch counters; a land of desperate losers, crooked insurance salesmen and small-time racketeers, of empty pockets and broken spirits. That was James M. Cain's America. If for Thomas Wolfe or Jack Kerouac The Road led to freedom, for Cain it was some kind of a prison, a vast, inescapable refuse pile for the hungry and homeless. The characters in Cain's books, most of them drifters and box-car bums, search desperately for a piece of anything to call home. And when they find it, in a highway tavern or a cheap boarding house, they cling to it ferociously and are willing to fight, and, as if often the case, to kill, to preserve it.
Although he was born and educated in Maryland, Cain found his America out West, in Southern California. There he ultimately carved out his niche in the annals of American literature, with books like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. His hard-bitten, journalistic style would make him one of the most frequently imitated authors of this century. The Baby in the Icebox, and Other Short Fiction, a new collection of many of Cain's previously out of print early stories and dialogues, traces his development from a moderately well-known yet inconsequential magazine writer in the East to the father of a minor literary movement in California.
From his beginnings as a writer, Cain was preoccupied with the common man. His characters were mostly poor workers or drifters who believed earnestly in the possibility of a better life, yet had no idea about where to find it. His earliest published fiction was in the form of brief, sharply satirical dialogues. The two dialogues included in the Baby in the Icebox collection, "The Hero" and "Theological Interlude," both originally appeared in the early '20s in The American Mercury, a magazine run by Cain's friend, the satirist H.L. Mencken. Cain overloads these pieces with his own impression of lower middle class dialect. His satire of the characters is not balanced (as it is in his later work) with compassion for them, and the pieces show only too clearly for what they are--raw, condescending attempts by an educated ex-English professor to make fun of the common folk. Fortunately, Cain later loosened up on the aint's and the you all's, and began constructing his characters around more than just their accents. Yet despite their shortcomings these dialogues reveal just enough of what would become widely known as Cain's "hard-boiled" writing to warrant inclusion in the collection, and, as Norman Mailer said of his own early writings in Advertisements for Myself, they allow the reader the luxury of seeing a writer at his worst as well as at his best.
After the dialogues, Cain began writing serious stories, and, as Roy Hoopes says in his introduction to the collection, his writing began to solidify. Most often the stories concern lonely and unhappy men who fall in love with lonely and unhappy women. The stories are about people with little in the world going for them, with little to look forward to and little to expect out of life, who suddenly find themselves thrown together for some unexpected reason. In "Coal Black," for example, a miner discovers a young woman who has accidentaly wandered down into the mine. To avoid getting the girl in trouble--a local superstition forbids women to enter a mine--the miner helps her out through the dangerous back way out. By the time they reach the open air, a kind of passionate love has developed between them. The miner, who two hours ago had never met this girl, finds himself suddenly in love.
Then he said it. He pulled her to him, pushed his lips against hers for the first time, and the words came jerkily: "Listen... The hell with going home.... Let's not go home.... Let's get married.... Let's...be together.
There are no lengthy courtships between Cain's characters, no flowers and chocolate, no meeting her parents and asking for her father's blessing. The passions are sudden and spontaneous and violent. Yet they do not seem phony or contrived. For all these homeless unhappy characters, the prospect of being loved stirs and then awakens their passions. In "The Girl in the Storm," for example, a railroad hobo finds himself trapped inside an old store during a flood with a young girl. After protecting her from the water and keeping her warm, he for the first time feels as though he has something to live for:
He put his arm around her, drew her to him. She let her head fall on his shoulder. He could smell her hair, and his throat contracted, as though he were going to cry. For the first time in his short battered life he was happy. His grip on her tightened, he pushed his cheek against hers. She buried her face in his neck.
It was in California that Cain funy explored this theme. In California, he found a society so new, so unstable that he didn't need floods or coal mines to bring two people passionately together. As he told Hoopes, "Any piece of California, no matter how drab, prosaic, or dull, is California just the same, the land of Golden Promise." Unlike the staid, conservative East, where the wealthy stayed wealthy and the poor stayed poor, the West had become a land of overnight wealth, of rags to riches, with nobody excluded from the chase. Many characters are willing to risk anything to find it.
And so it seems horrible, yet not really surprising when, in Cain's classic Postman, a shiftless drifter named Frank Chambers takes a job with the owner's wife, and with her plots to kill him. Nor is it surprising in Double Indemnity, when Walter Huff, an unsuccessful insurance agent, falls in love with one of his clients' wives, and plots with her to kill her husband.
Several of the stories in The Baby in the Icebox, like the title story, "Dead Man," and the deceptively titled "Pastorale" also have themes dealing with murder. Frighteningly, in each case murder seems to happen naturally, as though it were somehow an acceptable outlet for violent emotions. Only after committing the act itself do the characters begin to feel remorse. Ironically, Cain never seems to care much about the victim and rarely describes a victim's character. When he does, the victim usually comes across as some slovenly, mean person who was better off dead. In each case, the notion of the perfect crime obsesses the murderer, and in each case he succeeds in out-smarting the law.
And herein lies a subtle beauty in Cain's work. His characters--the bums, thieves and lowlifes--all somehow share a common thread of dignity. They share a common conception of what is just. In the end it is not the authorities who step in and solve the crime, who foil the perfect murder. Rather, it is the criminals themselves, who, tortured by their own feelings of guilt, in the end find what little solace they can by confessing their sins.