[Narrator John is down to his last few pesos, and is in a Mexican bar, eyeing up a young woman]
I had about decided to take a chance and go over there when she moved. She slipped over to a place about two tables away, and then she moved again, and I saw what she was up to. She was closing in on a bullfighter named Triesca, a kid I had seen a couple of times in the ring, once when he was on the card with Soloranza, that seemed to be their main ace at the time, and once after the main season was over, when he killed two bulls in a novillada they had one Sunday in the rain. He was a wow with the cape, and just moving up into the money.
[Some time later. John and Juana go to the opera in LA, to see Carmen]
They played the introduction and the lights went up and we began to have a good time. I’m telling you, that was opera that you dream about. They didn’t have any curtains. They put the lights up and there it was, and when they finished they blacked out and came up with a baby spot for the bows… On the stage they built a whole town, the guardhouse on one side, cafes on the other, the cigarette factory in back. You had to rub your eyes to believe you weren’t in Spain.
commentary: This book is mind-bogglingly difficult to describe. I read it years ago, and came across it recently and thought ‘Do I really remember this correctly?’ In the intervening years, I have developed an interest in opera, and this book is, yes really, largely about opera. James M Cain is known to most of us for the iconic noir books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity: hard-livin’ books bout hard-livin’ people. This one – well it’s just strange.
Protagonist/narrator John Howard Sharp is, when the book opens, an opera singer who has lost his talent, and is stuck in Mexico with no money and no prospects. He finds Juana on the fringes of a matador’s circle: she has a connection with bull-fighting, and possesses a beautiful matador’s cape. There are various adventures while they get together and travel through Mexico, with the result that he gets his voice back. So they travel back to the USA (she has to be smuggled in as an illegal immigrant). He can’t get anyone to take his singing seriously, they are struggling again. But then they go to see the opera Carmen (very much a continuing theme throughout the book) at the Hollywood Bowl. Now, wait for this: John realizes that one of the singers is ill, slips backstage and offers his services to the management, takes over, wearing Juana’s cape, and has a startling success. Again, yes really.
So now they are doing well, and he gets into films, and then a figure from his past appears, and things start to go wrong again… None of it is what you might be expecting: here’s a non-spoiler clue: The book was made into a film in 1956, starring Mario Lanza as the singer, but the story had been hugely bowdlerized… as Wikipedia says, after summarizing the book’s plot
‘none of this material could be considered suitable for an American movie in 1956’.
Intriguing, isn’t it…
It must be said, though, that there are quite other aspects of the book that would not be acceptable now: the narrator’s attitudes to Mexico, Mexicans, women and various others are all deplorable and uncomfortable.
In between the very varying adventures and love scenes, there are long disquisitions and descriptions of music, down to note-by-note analyses:
I wanted to put it up a half tone, so I could get it in the key of three flats, but I didn’t. It’s in the key of two sharps, the worst key there is for a singer, especially the high F sharp at the end, that catches a baritone all wrong…The F sharp is not in the score, but it’s tradition and you have to sing it.And a recipe for cooking an iguana. And a scene where he drives a car into a church, and they camp out there for a few days.
The story barrels along, and I defy anyone to guess what is coming next at any given point.
The opening scenes, where John meets Juana and gets into a disagreement with the bullfighter, reminded me of a Jorge Luis Borges story – Streetcorner Man, his first published story, which appeared in 1933, ie a few years before Serenade. Streetcorner Man is subverted in a later Borges story, Rosendo’s Tale (which appeared 40 years later, in Dr Brodie’s Report). It shows the other side of the story, and very much pulls the rug from the macho attitudinizing of the first one.
Cain, and Sharp, are also very knowledgeable about clothes – there were some very convincing descriptions of what Juana wears, and why she doesn’t fit in with others around her.
It’s a short, sharp, unique read. Of interest to opera-lovers and noir-lovers.
Picture of bullfighter from Texas State archives.
Poster for Federal Music Project presentation of "Carmen" at the Philharmonic Auditorium, Los Angeles – at exactly the era of the book, so could easily be the performance that Sharp gatecrashes/saves.