I love James M. Cain.
I generally give one of his books a reread every year; Double Indemnity is a personal favorite, although I also have soft spots for Mildred Pierce, Serenade, Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, and, of course, The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’ve not read all of his books, partly because I don’t ever want to be finished with the entire Cain canon, but also because many of his lesser-known are no longer in print. But yesterday, after I finished Lori Rader-Day’s sublime Little Pretty Things, I pulled out The Butterfly and read it in a little over an hour. (Many of Cain’s works are really short.)
She was sitting on the stoop when I came in from the fields, her suitcase beside her and one foot on the other knee, where she was shaking a show out that seemed to have sand in it. When she saw me she laughed, and I felt my face get hot, that she had caught me looking at her, and I hightailed it to the barn as fast as I could go. While I milked I watched, and saw her get up and walk all around, looking at my trees and my corn and my cabin, then go over to the creek and look at that and pitch a stone in. She was nineteen or twenty, kind of a medium size, with light hair, blue eyes, and a pretty shape. Her clothes were better than most mountain girls have, even if they were dusty, like she had walked up from the state road, where the bus ran. But if she was lost and asking her way, why didn’t she say something and get it over with? And if she wasn’t, why was she carrying a suitcase? When I was through milking, it was nearly dark, and I picked up my pails, came out of the barn, and walked over. “How do you do, miss?”
And so this is how Jess Tyler, abandoned eighteen years earlier by his wife, meets his now grown youngest daughter, Kady.
Cain’s novels are all relatively short (I think Mildred Pierce is actually the longest, at least of the ones I’ve read)–which is interesting on its face; many of my favorite writers (Cain, John D. Macdonald, Megan Abbott, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong) write short novels–and The Butterfly is only 118 pages long. The book is set in Appalachia; West Virginia, to be precise, and Cain’s grasp of what life is like for poor rural Southern people is spot-on, as he always was with every book. He also manages to get across the poverty, and the acceptance of that poverty, across without using vernacular; Jess says “hollow” instead of “holler,” as an example. It’s also amazing how he managed to get this book (or any of the others, really) published at the time he did; the subject matter seems a little bit much for the time. If Mildred Pierce is an opus on motherhood, and the strain of loving a child who is a monster; The Butterfly is the obverse, telling the tale of paternal love for his child that crosses that line that shouldn’t ever be crossed; from love to lust and desire. It’s quite chilling and disturbing, but also quite good because he makes it understandable, which makes it all the more chilling and disturbing.
The book was eventually filmed, as so many of his novels were, but this film was notorious as the screen debut of Pia Zadora. I’ve never seen it, actually–the only Pia Zadora movie I’ve ever seen is Voyage of the Rock Aliens, although I’ve heard The Lonely Lady is so bad it reaches epic camp proportions–but now I am kind of curious.
I also started reading Donna Andrews’ latest, Die Like an Eagle, yesterday while waiting for Paul to come home so we could go to the Parades.
And happy Mardi Gras to one and all.