Monday, May 07, 2012

32. Serenade by James M. Cain

This book has been sitting on my shelf for almost two decades.  A guy lent it to me at the first job I had out of college.  He stressed repeatedly how he wanted it back and then proceeded to question me daily on if I had read it yet or not.  Of course, I ended up not reading it and not returning it to him. I feel kind of bad about it, which is why it has stayed with me all these years.  I finally got to it on my on-deck shelf and wasn't entirely sure that it truly was the copy I had borrowed back in the day.  But sure enough I found my old business card in it (possibly the first of my career).  So if you are out there, Paul (I think that was the name), I've still got your copy of Serenade and will gladly mail it to you.

And now on to the book.  Cain was very successful as a writer in Hollywood (he did The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity) and this was one of his later books.  It's the first of his I have ever read.  It's the story of a down and out singer, John Howard Shore, in Mexico who meets a beautiful native prostitute in a bar and steals her away on a whim from the toreador she was with.  They decide to open up a brothel together, but on their way to Acapulco they get stuck in a church together during a long rainstorm and end up getting it on.   Somehow, this repairs his voice (we learn as the narrative goes on that he was at the top of the game until his voice stopped working due to some unspoken traumatic event in Paris and he fell and kept falling until he ended up broke in Mexico) and he changes his plans and decides to return to America, with the girl and get his career going.

In order to discuss this book, I have to give away some of the stuff that happens.  In fact, I already have as the narration is continuous and steady so that you don't really know what the main premise of the book is going to be until you are well into it.  So be warned, spoilers here.

He is truly talented and his renewed voice, after some struggling, indeed takes him back to the top.  He gets a regular radio show with a good sponsor, a couple of movie deals and then finally onto Carnegie Hall.  Back in New York, he meets that guy who was his bandleader and inspiration before he cracked up.  It seems like it should be a good reunion, but Shore is super edgy about the whole thing.  The guy, Winston, is super wealthy and obsessed with music and quickly insinuates himself back into Shore's life and career.  For reasons that don't get revealed right away, Shore hides Winston's existence from his Mexican wife.  When they do meet, she totally freaks out and then it all comes out in the wash.  Perhaps it was more obvious for audiences of 1937 when this was written, but I never would have guessed that the whole thing was because Shore had gay feelings for Winston.  Somehow, the gayness made his voice stop working.  He had to get it on with the hot indian mexican earth mama to get it back.  This revelation is well into the book, but there is still a climax  to be played out (which spoiler alert is portrayed on the super '80s photographic colour-tinted re-enactment cover of the edition I have). 

Serenade is quite odd.  I can't tell if Serenade is an advanced cultural critique of homophobia or simply a reflection of the simplistic cultural homophobia of the time. I believe that it was banned in many places when it did come out.  I can't say I loved the book.  There is a lot of talk about music in it that I found pretty boring, because I don't like writing about music in general and I am pretty ignorant about both classical music and what was popular music at that time.  At times, it went a bit too far (like when Juana produces her breast for him to suck on as if it was restoring his heterosexuality) but overall it's an interesting read with some pretty ripe, rich stuff going on.  My guess is that I will prefer his more straight-up noir thrillers.


Kate M. said...

I wonder how the gay theme was handled in the 1956 film with Mario Lanza.

kate M. said...

Oh, I see reading the plot summary that they turned the man into a woman, so he's got to choose between a New York society woman and his Mexican girlfriend.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks for the comment, Kate!

Man, talk about a total Hollywood cop-out! So typical. But I guess that's expecting a lot for the mid-50s. I wonder if the movie is any good. Could be interesting. I go to follow your link now.