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The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.audiobookstore.com)

The searing beauty of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” lies in its frightening simplicity. When James M. Cain wrote this marvelous story in 1934, he was one of the undisputed apex predators of the crime noir. Almost nine decades later, he still continues to remain a colossus straddling the genre. A scheming plot having carnal contours that at times works like a dream, and at others, flounders like a helpless kite detached from its string, ‘The Postman…’ represents the dawn of perdition that is sadly mistaken for the onset of passion.

Frank Chambers, a drifter, a vagabond and a habitual offender, narrates his story in the first person. A chance meeting with Nick Papadakis, a milquetoast Greek migrant, not just lands Chambers a job in Papadakis’ restaurant, but also sets off a clandestine affair with the Greek’s feisty wife, Cora. A woman who according to Chambers, “really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”

As Cora and Chambers begin to get dangerously close, Papadakis who  remains blissfully oblivious to the infidelities of his wife and the insincerity of his employee, becomes an unwitting ‘obstacle’. The two love birds decide that the only way to permanently tether their lives together would be to snuff out the life of Papadakis. Cora confesses to Chambers that she can no longer put up with a man who is ‘greasy and stinking.’ Interestingly a full seven decades later a Venture Capital firm of note missed a golden opportunity by ‘offloading’ shares in Apple since its founder, an eccentric by the name of Steve Jobs, due to an unfathomable aversion towards bathing, was intolerably ‘pungent’.

The first attempt on Papadakis’ life turns out into a veritable circus as the supposed victim cheerfully gets back to life with more vigour after experiencing the mild and irritating rigours of a skull fracture. Chambers makes a run for safety, only for fate to intervene in such a gloriously unpredictable manner so as to pair him with Chambers and Cora yet again.

It’s time for an even more deadly conspiracy to be hatched and this time the stakes become dangerously and disquietingly high. If things do not go to plan, three lives run the risk of getting derailed beyond redemption and damaged beyond repair. To make sure that there is no Papadakis resurrection a second exasperating time, the mode of execution would be a ghastly and ‘concocted’ automobile accident. Will Cora and Chambers pull off the unthinkable? Can Papadakis put a sand in the gears of two potential criminals?

The Postman.” is to be finished in one breathless, extended sitting. For a book that is all of 134 pages, it has more twists and turns than hairpin bends on a treacherous mountain track. An electrifying veneer of eroticism, that was deemed too inappropriate for the times in which the book was written, lends an added perspective to the stormy narrative. The ending, signifying the coming of life a full circle, hits you like a thunderbolt. There is no bracing for any impact for you never know what hit you and when. You can only reel, stagger, gasp and stay stupefied.

Cain plays preacher and Satan without any regard for the oscillating emotions of his reader. Even if one does not cheer on the lovers as one would encourage the debonair pairing of Bonnie and Clyde, there are times when one desperately wishes Chambers and Cora to pull the impossible off. Make no mistake, they are neither underdogs nor the perennial favourites. In fact they are a couple of unscrupulous, wretched and unconscionable people whom society would love to shackle within the confines of a prison or even warm a hangman’s noose. Yet, they gnaw at your emotions, grovel for your acceptance and stealthily get into your head.

There have been two movie adaptations of “The Postman…” The first one, released in 1946 stars Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Leon Ames, and Audrey Totter. But the more impactful, violent and seductive  adaption is the 1981 version that features a smouldering Jack Nicholson as the amoral philanderer, Frank Chambers, and the melancholic Jessica Lange as the reprobate, Cora. That moment when an unhinged Jack Nicholson lunges at the ravishing Jessica Lange, thereby setting in motion, an ominous machinery of fate and folly, is etched in the memory of every single movie goer.

“The Postman Always Rings Twice”, a virtuoso artist finding his apotheosis!

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