Book Review: Serenade by James M Cain

serenade book cover

James M. Cain wrote in the first person, from the criminal’s perspective. His storytellers are not usually hardened criminals, yet through circumstances commit the most atrocious of crimes. He writes about downtrodden, out-of-luck schmucks, who fall for the wrong kind of girl. Interestingly, it is usually his women who are tough, manipulative, and full of lust for the crime. The men tend to be suckered in by their seductive charms.

Serenade centers around a down-and-out opera singer, John Howard Sharp. He is so down on his luck that he’s been singing in a small club in Mexico, before, even they, kick him out. His luck seems to change when he meets a cheap whore, whom he falls with. His love for her causes his once faltering voice, to come back. What follows is a transcontinental series of adventures cataloging John’s skyrocketing rise in both movies and the New York opera, and his subsequent fall.

There is plenty to like about Serenade. Cain’s terse, cynical prose moves across the page like a song. He accurately portrays John’s love and hatred for his lover. There are plenty of nice character moments. Moments that give just the right details that give meaning to ordinary events. Much of the “action” of the story revolves around the little moments of life: sitting in a room talking to friends, stroking the hair of a girl, and listening to music. Cain understands that much of life is filled with these types of moments and that great changes and meaning can be found in them.

Before Cain became a writer, he was trained as a singer. In part, this novel seems to be an attempt for him to allow his musical knowledge and training to come to some use. Throughout the book, John converses about or describes internally the music he likes and hates, musicians, and his own singing. Some of this is vitally important to the story, for he is a professional singer, and the plot concerns his successes as such. Yet it is so infused with information that it, at times, feels more like a trade magazine than a proper story. At only 136 pages, it is superfluous to fill so many with discussions on Puccini and Mozart.

There is a revealing moment about John’s character in the last third of the book. Even while reading this in 2005 it seemed shocking. Yet it is treated with aplomb, handled with an expert hand. The feelings that arise out of the character seem true if not entirely kind. It is also interesting to see how that particular issue was handled at that time.

Overall, Serenade is an interesting read. It is well written and the characters are well drawn. However, if you have never read anything by James M. Cain, I would recommend picking up The Postman Always Rings Twice and then Double Indemnity before I began reading this.

Book Review: Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

diary chuck palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel was the bitter, cynical, diatribe called Fight Club. It is the story of young males who are so disenfranchised by materialistic American culture that they must beat themselves silly to feel anything. It is a scathing review of a society that numbs its members with consumerism. The characters become nihilistic in their views and begin destroying all that society deems worthy, including themselves. It spoke directly to a generation of males (and many females) including myself. It is a theme that permeates his following novels.

After seeing the excellent 1999 movie based on Fight Club and reading the book, I planted myself firmly in the fandom of its writer. I began reading his subsequent books in no particular order (other than what I could find at the library.) I made it through Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, and most recently Diary. Each of these stories follows the same basic guidelines. An assortment of odd and often disturbed characters move through an increasingly absurd amount of crazed plot lines. There is the former cult member on a plane to his death (Survivor) the faceless ex-model on the road with a trans woman (Invisible Monsters). You get a man who intentionally chokes on food in crowded restaurants so he can bilk his saviors out of cash (Choke) and an involuntary killer who can summon a culling song of death at will. And finally a coma Diary “written” by the wife of an attempted suicide. Each of the novels is filled with jabs and slashes at societal norms. All of the characters go through extreme changes and end with a shocking twist. Unfortunately, they wind up being mostly the same.

Diary tells the story of Misty Wilmont, a once-promising art student, who now waits tables at a seaside resort while she writes a coma diary to her husband. It seems her husband, Peter, whisked the young artist to the resort tourist island of Waytansea. Throughout the story, Peter is in a coma from an apparent suicide attempt. All is not well on the once quaint Waytansea island and Misty quickly finds herself being locked in a hotel room by her mother-in-law and daughter, being forced to paint picture after picture blindfolded. I won’t give any more of the story away, because it is filled with the usual Palahniuk twists. Once again this book is filled with, mostly true factoids, and a biting cynicism towards all things culturally held dear. The problem, here, is that we’ve heard it all before.

Try as he might, Mr. Palahniuk has been writing the same story novel after novel. Oh, he gives us different characters and more outlandish scenarios, but his central themes remain the same. I read this one just waiting for the new twists to occur. But even the twists seem more of the same. I wasn’t expecting the actual twists to occur as they did, but I was expecting the twists, and that knocked half the shock out of them. The characters seem less real, and more like a cheap device to rattle off more nihilistic castigation.

Palahniuk is a talented writer. I just wish he’d get off his philosophy and get to writing something new, something fresh, something that Fight Club was when it first arrived in bookstores.