NOT AT HIS BEST IN SERENADE, CAIN WAS STILL ABLE
Serenade, by James M. Cain (1937)
As Serenade opens, protagonist Jack Sharp is banished from Paradise, subsisting in Mexico as a kind of operatic stumblebum. He lost both his golden voice and his European Eden when his muse deserted him over the sin of homosexuality. The agent of his temptation and fall was rich, charming Winston Hawes, his maestro and mentor in Paris.
In his Mexico hell, Jack nevertheless finds his Eve, a three-peso whore named Juana Montes, who straightens his libido, helps heal his voice, and escapes with him for his second shot at fame and fortune in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Before long, he conquers Hollywood and reaches his ultimate goal, singing at the Met in New York. Naturally, Winston Hawes reappears at the height of Jack’s meteoric rise. Not long after, in a decadent party setting that resembles a drag ball, Juana fulfills her fate and crushes the devil/serpent underfoot.
Those who have been awarded a second sojourn in the Garden must, of course, endure another round of purgation in hell. To that end, Jack and Juana flee to South America for the denouement, deteriorating physically and mentally until they reach ground zero—the same Mexican town and milieu where they met. The ending is appropriately melodramatic, but is too long in coming. Cain has tried our patience by now with a lot of mopey agonizing about the lovers’ final breakup.
In spite of its faults, Serenade is mostly brisk and involving, a damn good read. You may be put off by Cain’s theory of homosexuality and by his lead character’s bias against Mexicans, but the former serves his story well, and the latter is ably countered by another character’s defense of Mexico and its people in Chapter Six.
Serenade falls short of Cain’s most celebrated work in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Give him credit, however, for tackling a difficult theme as far back as 1937. Here was a noted crime fiction author expounding on the relationship between homosexuality and creativity. An especially bold move, I think, because his many friends and acquaintances had to notice that James Cain’s own musicality and physical description matched up with those of his protagonist. Despite his three marriages, and despite the charge of homophobia that some have laid at his door, I find myself wondering whether Cain wrote Serenade, in part, as self-revelation.
Be aware that the film version of Serenade, starring Mario Lanza, is not the film noir equivalent of the novella, but a color-drenched and tuneful melodrama that converts the protagonist’s gay nemesis into a femme fatale, portrayed by Joan Fontaine.