The Cocktail Waitress is a posthumously released novel from James M. Cain, the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain, along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, was a groundbreaker in the genre of hardboiled crime fiction and left several unpublished manuscripts after his death in 1977. The Cocktail Waitress was his final work, written at the age of 83, and is served with a classic Cain twist.
The novel follows the struggles of a young, attractive woman’s attempts to provide for herself and her son following the untimely death of her abusive husband under somewhat murky circumstances. Set in roughly the 1940s, Joan Medford has few options- either to remarry, or allow her sister-in-law, with whom she does not see eye-to-eye, to raise her son. Joan initially takes a job serving at a local bar and meets two prospects for a second husband, one of whom she falls in love with, and one who can provide a good life for her son.
The rest of novel follows the conflict of the choice and Joan’s attempts to set her life straight. While the plot sounds as though it could be a Nicholas Sparks novel, let me firmly dissuade you of that notion. Cain writes about base, primal emotions and most of the characters in The Cocktail Waitress are only one step up the social ladder from those in a Charles Bukowski novel. Cain’s books were considered utterly shocking in his prime and still have the ability to stun today with their sheer rawness. Much of the power of this and other Cain novels lie in the rejection of the typical whitewashing applied during this period of American history. The Cocktail Waitress does not shy away from what human nature is capable of when push comes to shove.
What sets this novel apart from some of Cain’s other classics, is that it is written in the first person, from the perspective of Joan Medford. Interestingly, earlier versions of the manuscript were written in the third person- apparently the change of voice was a last minute decision of the author. If so, it was a brilliant one. Seeing everything presented through Joan’s filter lends an intriguing element of ambiguity to the action. Can we really believe her version of the events? Did she, or is she just spinning us along? This gap between intention and meaning promotes a mere reader to the far more intimate position of the judge of Joan’s confessions. Wavering with indeterminateness, the reader is perfectly set up for the classic Cain gut punch served at the ending. [subscribe2]