January 21: Evan Lewis
January 28: Kerrie Smith
February 4: Todd Mason
February 11: George Kelley
Mike Wilkerson lives in St. Petersburg, FL. His short stories have appeared in numerous places on the web and he is currently working on his first novel. You can read Mike's work at his blog, Writing the Hard Way
By James M. Cain
James M. Cain is one of those people I wonder about. I’d read two of his most popular novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, so many times I’m not even going to try and remember. Favorites. Highly influential. Same goes with the two excellent movies which bear the same name.
Still, my reading of Cain was limited to those two books. Then one day in Haslam’s book store here in St. Petersburg, I happened upon a little paperback by Mr. Cain on sale for a few bucks. I read the blurb on the back cover. Strange. I bought it and read it in a sitting.
Written in 1937, Serenade follows a down and out opera singer from the States, John Howard Sharp, now living in Mexico with three pesos left to his name. His voice is gone. His career is over. And then comes a chance encounter in a cantina with a beautiful local whore, Juana Montes. Their first night together is forgettable and months will pass before their paths again. When they do, Juana makes a business proposition. She wants to open a high class establishment/whorehouse for Americans in Acapulco, and she has a big politician as a backer. She asks Sharp to come along, “Play a guitar, little bit, maybe. Write a letter, count money, speak Ingles, help me, no work very hard.” Sharp agrees.
The venture in Acapulco turns out to be a sham and consequently, Sharp and Juana cross the wrong people. It’s only through the help of a kind ship’s Captain that they are able to migrate back to the states landing in California. Juana’s illegal status is a constant worry.
Back in the states, Sharp’s voice comes back and he becomes a Hollywood movie star with a three picture deal. Even though Sharp despises Hollywood, he’s far from the destitute he experienced in Mexico. He is once again a big success. He and Juana are happy and in love.
Sharp is soon offered a chance to return to his passion of singing, which means moving to New York and breaking his movie contract. Not a good idea. When Winston Hawes, a wealthy man from Sharp’s past, steps in with an offer to clear the path so he can fulfill his dreams of becoming an opera star again, Sharp understands the past and its consequences die hard.
And here is where Cain, considering the time period and restrictions in place when he wrote this book, begins dropping bombs.
Who is Winston Hawes? Can Sharp hold on to Juana, even after she discovers his secret (“Every man has got five percent of that in him”)? Do past events in Mexico eventually catch up to them, or are Sharp and Juana’s fate sealed within the States?
Though not nearly on par with my Cain favorite of Double Indemnity, Serenade is highly readable. Yes, there are some long passages which could easily be cut out-I don’t need to, nor want to know that much about the opera-and Sharp getting his voice back and rapid rise to stardom is just too damn easy. But Cain’s use of description, language and dialogue, along with his ability to subtly run a vein of grief and regret through people who seem to completely lack both, pulls the story through. Serenade was a great find.