Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Plot: In its glorious opening sentence, drifter Frank Chambers is thrown off a hay truck and into the roadside diner of Nick and Cora Papadakis. Not intending to stay, Frank falls violently for femme fatale Cora and is persuaded by Nick to stick around, performing odd jobs. When Frank’s passion is suddenly reciprocated, things degenerate as the couple plan their escape from oblivious Nick. To say any more would ruin the fantastic twists and turns this domestic-noir drama takes.
Verdict: It’s a classic for a reason; it’s great and holds up. The Folio Edition is also a great way to rediscover the tale, with original and insightful illustrations.
Review: Works of popular fiction that make it into that elite club of literary fiction are the best. You can read away, guilt free, because its classic status gives you the excuse of just reading your way through the literary cannon. But its popular status almost guarantees it’ll be a pleasure, rather than a slog for bragging rights (I’m looking at you, Finnegan’s Wake – wait, which I have never finished. Damn.). That pretty much sums up The Postman Always Rings Twice – a title that you have no doubt heard before, but one that is a classic for a reason. The novel is short enough to be read in one sitting; but substantial enough that you’ll ruminate over it for days. The plot is straightforward enough, the psychologising limited; but like all noir, the shadows that polished dialogue throws tinges everything with new meaning and rewards reflection. In short, it goes down easy; but the pleasure it affords is vivid and undimmed when your thoughts wander back to it.
Returning to a classic like this is also a lesson in what made the MFA-school of writing great in the first place; a style that has been diluted by the plethora of authors now trying to mimic it. The sentences are terse and hard boiled; partly as an affectation of the genre, but most meaningfully and tellingly because of the man narrating the story. Chambers is the typical anti-hero of the period; tough, no-nonsense, takes what he wants, lives and moves on. The sort of character thatMad Men’s Don Draper is frequently made out to be; or the character that Tony Soprano seems to be referencing every time be cries “What ever happened to Gary Cooper! You know – the strong, silent type.” Chambers is an American ideal of the man as barely-contained animalistic force; his relationship with Cora the result of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
The further the tale progresses, the more the style seems not an affectation but a necessity; here are two individuals being driven by passions they don’t fully understand and can barely articulate. The novel contains only a few scenes of emotional revelation, which puncture the rapid momentum of the narrative, and they are breathtaking both in their rawness and simplicity. It’s during one of these moments that Cora remarks:
‘It makes us even, but look at us now. We were up on a mountain. We were up so high, Frank. We had it all, out there, that night. I didn’t know I could feel anything like that. And we kissed and sealed it so it would be there forever, no matter what happened. We had more than any two people in the world. And then we fell down. First you, and then me. Yes, it makes it even. We’re down here together. But we’re not up high any more. Our beautiful mountain is gone.’
It works for so many reasons. Partially because of all of the salacious reasons provided by the plot that has come before it (and Steve Erickson, in his introduction to the Folio Edition, remarks that the plot is likely based on a typical crime report published in the dailies of the times and relished by the scandalised reader over their kitchen tables). Partially because both Cora and Frank remain every-people; not quite ciphers, but certainly stand-ins for similar moments within our own experience. But mostly it works because it suggests so much – the things the characters can’t say, because they are only working them out as they are speaking; the suggestion that this would be a very different tale if it were narrated from her point of view instead of his; the suggestion that their misery, and ours, is caused because we never give up the hope of things lasting forever. The narrative is relatable because it deals in common moments; it’s a classic because it gets at these points in a way that can’t be beaten. The style is short and stripped because it doesn’t need to be anything more than that to get across the central relationship that drives the narrative.
One other moment deserves particular mention, because it is of an entirely different character to the central tumult discussed above. Nick Papadakis, Cora’s Greek immigrant husband and owner of the diner, is in many ways a periphery character to the narrative – yet Cain spends more time with him than is strictly necessary for the purposes of the plot, and deploys his submerged counter-story to great effect. Every time Frank meets Nick, the Greek is unable to contain his enthusiasm and relief at Frank’s company – welcoming a doom that everyone can see coming except Nick himself. But Nick’s enthusiasm for Frank springs from a deeper well:
It was a big scrapbook, and in the front he [Nick] had pasted his naturalization certificate, and then his wedding certificate, and then his license to do business in Los Angeles County, and then a picture of himself in the Greek Army, and then a picture of him and Cora the day they got married … He showed me where he had put the fancy stuff on a couple of the pages. He had inked in the curlycues, and then colored it with red, white, and blue. Over the naturalization certificate, he had a couple of American flags, and an eagle, and over the Greek Army picture he had crossed Greek flags, and another eagle, and over his wedding certificate he had a couple of turtle doves on a twig.
Nick’s whole life, reduced to a scrapbook, contains more expression in the illustrations and the pride with which he displays these milestones than he could ever articulate otherwise. While The Postman Always Rings Twice kicks off with a man being transformed, it quietly suggests in its almost non-existent curlicues the life of a man who has been transformed; by his service, his migration, and his wife. While Frank and Cora contain a certain sort of universal experience, on the fringes Nick hints at another. Such are the hidden depths of a novel that, on the surface, seems to tell a simple and lurid tale.
There is much else in this classic that continues to recommend itself to new audiences – audiences with only a fading consciousness of its depression-era setting – but those virtues are best left to fresh discovery by the reader. That so much comment can be contained within a deceptively simple page-turner is impressive. But let’s leave it at this – for even as Cora says “Well then, I’m rid of the devil, Frank … so the devil has left me” we know, and Cain has convinced us, that nothing lasts forever.
Edition: I reviewed this while reading the 2012 Folio Society Edition, and it is an exquisite way to experience the book. Containing seven illustrations by Patrick Leger, perfectly attuned to the narrative, and the usual high quality of Folio books, it is well worth the investment. Yes, I’m a candidate for any Folio Anonymous meetings, but this one is a candidate for one of their best editions.