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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Cocktail Waitress

James M. Cain

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To purchase The Cocktail Waitress

Title: The Cocktail Waitress
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Novel
Written: (2012)
Length: 270 pages
Availability: The Cocktail Waitress - US
The Cocktail Waitress - UK
The Cocktail Waitress - Canada
The Cocktail Waitress - India
  • The Cocktail Waitress was first published posthumously in 2012
  • With an Afterword by Charles Ardai

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Our Assessment:

B : pieces of the story don't quite work together, but there's still a lot of that Cain magic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/9/2012 Michael Connelly
Publishers Weekly . 9/7/2012 Megan Abbott
The Scotsman . 13/10/2012 Michael Connelly
The Spectator . 15/12/2012 Charles Cumming
The Telegraph . 20/8/2012 Julia Handford
TLS . 12/10/2012 Sarah Curtis

  From the Reviews:
  • "While this story of a femme fatale with a gut-turning cosmic comeuppance at the end smolders and burns bright at times, it doesnít quite sustain the blue-hot source of human combustion found in the authorís earlier work. It certainly entertains, but it also disappoints." - Michael Connelly, The New York Times Book Review

  • "And like so many of his novels, itís a confessional tale, told from the viewpoint of the widow herself, forced by economic necessity to wait tables and compelled by a mix of ambition, maternal longing, and pique to take a series of perilous risks to hit the big gold dream. Whatís missing, however, is Cainís trademark propulsive pace. The novel reads in fits and starts, perhaps the inevitable result of its bumpy lineage. (...) Yet The Cocktail Waitress still offers much of the addictive weirdness of vintage Cain: delirious coincidences, the hidden kinks of the middle class, and a prime example of what has always been one of Cainís greatest talents: the turn-of-the-screw moment when we realize just how trapped our narrator has become." - Megan Abbott, Publishers Weekly

  • "The deficiency is that the story is not coiled as tightly as Joan. It meanders across both human nature and geographic terrain. Plot seams occasionally show or are obvious far in advance of the denouement. (...) At still other times the self-knowledge Joan possesses is perfect and some of the best stuff Cain ever put down on paper (.....) This book is not vintage Cain, but it is Cain nevertheless, and that makes it a worthwhile read." - Michael Connelly, The Scotsman

  • "Given the constraints of tying together a novel from random fragments, it is to Ardaiís credit that he has produced a coherent story, albeit one that lacks the zing and suspense of Cainís best work." - Charles Cumming, The Spectator

  • "Such a steamy set-up can only end in tears and James M Cainís The Cocktail Waitress does not disappoint." - Julia Handford, The Telegraph

  • "Cain's skill is to make Joan's narrative an easy river of words and the very ambiguity of her case is seductive." - Sarah Curtis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       You can see why James M. Cain never published The Cocktail Waitress during his lifetime, apparently never quite satisfied with how it all came (or didn't quite) together. It's a complete novel, but clearly Cain was still struggling with aspects of it; as editor Charles Ardai explains in his Afterword:

We not only had a complete and finished manuscript, we had several, as well as several partial manuscripts and fragments, some consisting of no more than a few lines on a single sheet of notepaper, others going for a dozen pages or a few dozen. None of the manuscripts were dated, making establishing their order difficult
       The version put forth here is, indeed, a complete novel, and it does work as a novel. It's not a rough draft that's been polished up. But you can sense Cain wasn't satisfied with some of the seams and transitions -- that he had found some answers to make his story work, but that he wasn't convinced yet they were exactly the right answers.
       The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford and begins with her burying her husband. A no-good drunk, he crashed a car after an argument they had had -- and at least one of the policemen assigned to look into the case, Private Church, thinks the circumstances are suspicious, and that Joan might have had something to do with her husband's death.
       Joan is only twenty-one. She has a three-year-old son, Tad, the light of her life, but is letting her sister-in-law Ethel take care of him for now. Ethel can't have children of her own, and clings to the child desperately, something that Joan can tell will be a problem. But she has to get her life in order before she can reclaim her son. The friendlier of the two policemen investigating her husband's death recommends her for a job, and that's how she winds up as a cocktail waitress.
       In her new job she quickly catches the eye of a regular, an older, successful businessman named Earl K. White, who always drops by in the afternoon for just a tonic water. Earl immediately makes it a habit to tip Joan very generously; he's clearly smitten, and he's very, very generous. There's another man who doesn't make quite as good a(n almost) first impression when Joan serves him -- but his name is Tom Barclay, and by that time Joan has signaled several times already that he would play an important role as well (beginning with the novel's opening line: "I first met Tom Barclay at my husband's funeral").
       Tom also woos Joan, though a bit more aggressively than Earl does. A co-worker of Joan's thinks Tom is going places:
He's nobody special -- not yet. But he's one of those you just know will be. Tom Barclay's got an ambition that means something.
       Earl, on the other hand, is already very successful -- and very free with his money. But Earl has a bad ticker, lamenting even as he lusts after Joan:
As my doctor has warned me repeatedly, I can't ... be with a woman. He's quite certain, my heart wouldn't stand up to the strain. Or in other words, marriage with you, for me, would be a sentence of death.
       Of course, marriage to Joan also turned out to be a sentence of death for husband number one .....
       The set-up has a lot of potential, but Cain isn't quite sure how to run with it. Joan's maternal instincts seem a driving force -- the impression is meant to be that she'll do anything to get her kid back -- but Tad remains conveniently tucked away for much of the book, and if being reunited with him was all she was after she could have her happy ending much sooner. Then there are several not-quite-false-starts -- dramatic feints that fizzle out: for example, Private Church comes with an exhumation order for Joan's first husband -- and then nothing is heard about that investigation for most of the rest of the book. Or Joan, suddenly sitting quite pretty thanks to Earl's generosity, does a kind turn for Tom (or rather a friend of Tom's) and suddenly seems on the verge of losing it all (a situation resolved in the book's oddest episode, which seems to have practically nothing to do with the rest of the story). Or Joan realizes she might be pregnant, at a most awkward time -- which would also be a disaster for another reason she remains oblivious to (involving the sedatives someone has passed on to her) but which certainly resonates with the reader. All these situations resolve themselves with barely a fizzle.
       In her account, Joan presents herself as the object of the intense desire of these two men, but she's hardly a pure innocent. She describes what happens simply and neutrally, but even so it's hard not to see her as a manipulator; she's not quite just the pawn (who is largely only worried about being reunited with her son) she wants to be seen as. And, on occasion, she realizes she might be in over her head: "I knew I'd got myself into something", it dawns on her at one point. And then also:
And then at last I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.
       Yes, Cain certainly still had that touch, conveying the slowly-dawning, shiver-inducing realization that this might all just be a house of cards that Joan has built around her, and that it ain't gonna stand. Typically for this novel, there are more feints as to how Joan will be undone: things do go wrong and bad (in a bit of a rush and muddle towards the end -- Cain could have ironed out some of this) but he keeps his knock-out blow for the very end.
       You can sense Cain's uneasiness in how the book closes: it's almost too cruel how he ties things up, Joan's account ending with the illusion of everything finally being all set and right, just before it is about to be horribly shattered, in a way Joan can't see coming but the reader knows looms right there.
       The Cocktail Waitress is a sort of near miss: the elements are there and, despite a few misbegotten scenes (usually involving sex or the discussion of sex ("Joanie, not to get too personal, but are you getting damp, like ? In a certain intimate place ? That we don't mention in mixed company, but between girls could be called the crotch ?"), Cain's writing is pretty solid, with a few great bits. Certainly the numerous story-twists that lead almost nowhere are puzzlingly distracting while serving little purpose, and Cain could have tautened up the narrative by doing away with one or two and integrating the others better. Maybe, too, the femme fatale aspect of the extremely young narrator doesn't come through strongly enough, though maybe that's how Cain wanted it; still, by the end one does have to at least suspect there's more to that fatale aspect (and Private Church's instincts) than Joan's been letting on.
       If it weren't Cain that had written it one might even be more forgiving, but he set the bar very high for himself with his earlier, tighter works of fiction. But even if it's not first-rate Cain, there's enough Cain in it to be of considerable interest. It probably isn't quite the novel Cain hoped it could be, but it is more than just some posthumous curiosity, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 September 2012

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The Cocktail Waitress: Reviews: James M. Cain: Other books by James Cain under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977) was, among other things, managing editor of The New Yorker and a screenwriter. He published his first novel when he was forty-two, and achieved great success with several hard-boiled classics.

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