Tuesday, February 05, 2013

5. The Magician's Wife by James M. Cain

I'm starting to question James M. Cain's reputation.  This is the second book of his that I have read and while I enjoyed the reading, I found it to be seriously flawed.  I did read some other reviews that considered this part of his lesser, later work so I will withhold such a general judgement for now.  But I am wary.  The reason is that the same flaw that bothered me about Masquerade is the one that makes The Magician's Wife so preposterous: a rigidity and blindness in his approach to sexuality that seems extremely dated.  Cain seems hampered by a morality that he himself can't seem to see.  So instead of talking around sex like many of his contemporaries did, he hides from it all the while that it is the main mechanism that is driving his storyline forward.  It makes for a disconnect for the reader.  You are constantly questioning why the main character is behaving the way he is.

The plot here is quite compelling.  Clay Lockwood is a super succesful meat salesman.  Now I love any book that takes the time to explain the details of a real job and the mechanisms behind this and Cain really does this here.  We learn about Clay's role in the early days of food industrialization, selling pre-packaged meat products to high-end restaurants.  It's fascinating to read about how he has to explain to experienced chefs that they only need to throw the foil packet in boiling water for one minute before the meat is ready.  This is considered the new haute cuisine!  So I was quite psyched when the book started.  In touring one of his major clients, he meets a super-hot hostess, Sally Alexis, who demonstrates impressive efficiency in the way she runs the restaurant.  Circumstances bring them together again and they are clearly attracted to each other.  Unfortunately, she is married.  To a magician!  Not only that, but the magician comes from a wealthy family and they have a young son together.  Clay and Sally fall in love.  She is unhappy with the magician.  He is a jerk.  But she refuses to leave him because in doing so she will cut off her son's chance at inheriting his father's money (currently also blocked by her crabby mother-in-law).  As the book progresses, she reveals herself to be more and more of a psycho, possibly murdering the mother-in-law and then pushing Clay more and more to help her murder her husband.

It's a classic set-up.  The problem is that none of it really rings true.  Clay seems like a rational, focused dude and Sally shows herself to be completely psycho early on. She spazzes out and breaks all kinds of fancy art in his sweet penthouse apartment.  Why would he bother with her?  There is nothing in his character that explains why he would stick with this woman. He is a super eligible bachelor with a fine future.  Furthermore, even if her son would lose his inheritance, Clay is very well off and on his way to becoming even more succesful (he gets promoted in the course of the book and is being groomed to run the whole company).  He could easily support Sally and her son with a wealthy lifestyle.  The only thing that holds it all together is that they had sexual intercourse and that now he is somehow destined to be stuck with her.  Except that Cain never tells us this and never dives into it in any interesting way.  It's just assumed that it's the 50s, if you bone some chick you are going to go all crazy and make a bunch of stupid decisions that will ruin your life because you have to whatever she wants.  It's so weird.  So while I'm reading it, I'm quite enjoying all the situations and the characters but I'm not believing any of it and Clay just comes off like the giantest chump ever (and there are a lot of them).

So ultimately a failure, but not a painful one for the reader.  Also, the paperback edition I found is quite lovely.

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