Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jim Cain

I started out in search of ordinary things
How much of a tree bends in the wind
I started telling the story without knowing the end

I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again
Something to be seen was passing over and over me
Well it seemed like the routine case at first
With the death of the shadow came a lightness of verse
But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzles
And I work myself until I'm frazzled

I ended up in search of ordinary things
Like how can a wave possibly be?
I started running, and the concrete turned to sand
I started running, and things didn't pan out as planned

In case things go poorly and I not return
Remember the good things I've done
In case things go poorly and I not return
Remember the good things I've done
Done me in

'Jim Cain' by Bill Callahan (from sometimes I wish we were an eagle)

I've been reading James M Cain: The Five Great Novels, which has been hanging around the house for at least 20 years or so. Underground man reads it from time to time. So in a hot January, when I felt jaded with all other reading, I turned to this.

You might know the films that have been made of his books: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity ...    What he does is chart the desperation of a particular type of person in a particular period in America. He writes well - if I don't like someone's sentences I stop reading. I think it's fair to say I'm now addicted to Cain. I regard him as a literary writer.

Mildred Pierce is my favourite: the story of a housewife during the depression who makes it big with a chain of restaurants after starting out baking pies to sell in her kitchen. There is no crime in Mildred Pierce (though the filmed version has a murder in it), except perhaps the crime of loving an undeserving daughter too much and spoiling her rotten.

People in Cain's novels often work hard and do well - and then lose it all again. It's the the American dream turned sour. The characters have fatal flaws, but they struggle and do their best. Cain is interested in the detail of exactly how they do it; he details the poverty and the desperation.

And Bill Callahan? What does his song mean? 

"I started out in search of ordinary things" could be a mission statement for many writers.  Bill and Jim were both born in Maryland. And Cain's middle name is Mallahan. So they have things in common - or Callahan thought so. (And I suppose you could call them dark. I once sent a Bill Callahan album to the son known as Bush Tucker man, thinking it might be his kind of thing, but he hated it. 'It's so bloody depressing!')

Maybe I like darkness.

Next stop, I think, is Dostoyevsky: The Devils (or if you prefer, The Possessed) It's the only way I can think of following up Jim Cain.


  1. I think "I started in search of ordinary things" could be a motto for a great many people. So often we get caught up in seeking the extraordinary and amazing that we lose the amazing in the ordinary. (Sounds pithy, I know, but I have Monday brain (despite the fact that it's Tuesday night here)).

    I'm glad to meet another literary-world-wrapped-person who gets jaded with books/reading and must find that ONE book (like the one ring) that brings them back to book world.

    1. I like your Monday brain, Jenn... and sometimes I think you just need to read something completely different.

  2. beautiful...have just downloaded. As a Leonard Cohen Bonny Prince Billie and Cat Power fan I get a lot of that 'it's so depressing' talk. But it's so beautiful and wry and ironic! I yodel, to deaf ears...

    1. I can't think of much good music that's not melancholy. Kind of goes with the territory. (Saw BPB at the Sydney opera House early last year - he was good, but later I wished I'd gone to see Ryan Adams in Brisbane, who was on at the same time... choices...)