The Postman Always Rings Twice, the Plumber Rarely More Than Once

I read a book this week, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” There is no postman, but plenty of rings. The title page of my copy is stamped “WITHDRAWN,” and below that, “CIRCULATION STORAGE,” and above the publisher info., “SIERRA MADRE PUBLIC LIBRARY.” When a library “withdraws” a book, perhaps some helpful librarian might add a note of explanation as to why the book is being withdrawn. My copy, a casual gift from an old, steady friend, is still in decent condition, 187 pages of hardback, hard read, not to be confused with hard to read, but hard in the deadpan noir sense, where none of the characters are likeable, not even the so-called good guys, and all are static characters – no one changes from beginning to end.

I also repaired a toilet this week, having to drive to the hardware store only twice, which is par for home repairs in my neck of the woods. To drive to the hardware store only once in the process of a repair job like fixing a toilet is a hole in one. A real plumber rarely requires more than one trip to fix a toilet. A real plumber is a master of the hole in one repair job.

A cat plays a prominent role in the “Postman” book, illustrating the randomness with which animal nature creeps about, often spoiling plans with ironic gifts from the cosmos, like Flannery O’Connor’s grace (the cat in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” comes to mind, too, reading “Postman”). The lead prosecutor in the “Postman” case, Sackett, calls the anti-hero, Frank Chambers, a “mad dog.” Frank Chambers is an interesting name, a formal place of serious purpose. There is also rank in the chambers, and, in the tradition of the Naturalist writers, one cannot change the rank into which one is born. There’s only one murder, but two attempts, perhaps the twice ringing of the title. I found no evidence that a cat played a role in the toilet failure business mentioned above, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. Meanwhile, I was also thinking ahead to Flannery’s “Good Man” anti-hero character’s name, “The Misfit.” The Misfit would be a good name for a cat.

“Postman,” by James M. Cain, was originally published in 1934. My copy is a tenth printing, October 1945. Edmund Wilson thought that perhaps it was the hard times that seemed to call for some hard writing. But some are born into hard settings, others into easy chairs, and the postman seems to ring indiscriminately, without regard for regal versus rough. And he can find you on Route 66 just as easy as out on Highway 61. My copy has library markings on the inside back cover. There are two sets of 5 vertical lines crossed diagonally left down to right in the upper left corner. Under that, vertically down the inside back cover, 82 with 4 hash marks, then 82 with 1 hash mark, and so on: 84, 4 hash marks; 85, 2 hash marks; 89, 1 hash mark; 90, 1 hash mark; 91, 2 hash marks; 92, 2 hash marks; 93, 3 hash marks; 94, 1 hash mark; 95, 1 hash mark; then, a new column: 98, 2 hash marks; 99, 1 hash mark; 02, 1 hash mark; 03, 1 hash mark; 04, 3 hash marks. I’ve added, below the 04, 12, and 1 hash mark. If someone else reads it, I’ll add a second hash mark under 12. Maybe I’ll start my own library of library discards, “The Used, Used Library.” We find ourselves in hard times for libraries.

I don’t know if Cain was ever at the Sierra Madre library, but maybe he was. And if he was, I wonder if he checked out and read Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” which came to mind as I was reading “Postman,” later in the book. Dreiser’s book, published in 1925, also tells of lives and plans of deception all gone awry thanks to chance occurrences but that result nevertheless in crime and punishment. Dreiser, though, filled his book with background and foreshadowing, motivations and cross-purposes, not to mention long sentences. Cain’s book is terse, devoid of metaphor. But what links “Postman” to “Tragedy” is the notion of Naturalistic purpose, helpless humans trying to create some sense of reason in a reasonless and unreasonable world, and of the influence of chance in ruining the seeming reasonableness of planning for something, for anything. Camus’s “The Stranger” also comes to mind, particularly given the parallel scenes with a priest at the end of both “Stranger” and “Postman.”

If “Postman” is good, it’s because it accomplishes its purpose. Whether or not that purpose is good is another matter.

I discovered the problem with the toilet had to do with the overflow tube, which was higher than the critical level mark on the filler valve. Thus when the float stuck, the water spilled out the handle hole before it reached the overflow tube. The toilet never even had a chance to run. I replaced the filler valve and flapper, and took a hacksaw blade and cut the overflow tube down to 1″ below the CL line on the filler valve, which, I discovered, is code. The toilet had been out of compliance. Then I had to make the second trip back to the hardware store, to buy a new handle, which is what broke to begin with – there were two problems at once – but I had so focused on the sticking float problem that I had forgotten about the broken handle. This is how noir plots are constructed.

6 thoughts on “The Postman Always Rings Twice, the Plumber Rarely More Than Once

  1. Interesting juxtaposition (?) of toilet valve & noir novel . Could it be that the 30s /40s world of the noir novel ( unt film ) was , in a crude sense , a figurative toilet , and the detective / hero / main character is the tricky slightly off ( out of compliance ) –keeps the whole room from flooding– valve ? It’s a touch-and-go plot , going back to the hardware store again —– who told you life was going to be easy ? only to realize that the handle to the whole thing is broken , noir . As we try to get a handle on life noir happens .

    • The venerable (but non-scholarly, non-schoolastic – moratorium here on those brainy academic troopers, you know) 20th Century critic Edmund Wilson, who didn’t much care for detective novels, thought the noir pitch had something to do with all the bad times world wide, the Great Depression, for there didn’t seem any way to explain the hardness of life, no one to pin the blame on, no one to lay the guilt to, to expiate, and all that. I don’t know; you look back, and all times seem hard times. I think it all went south with prohibition. But what struck me reading Postman was all the connections I was able to make, to Flannery, Camus (“Stranger” has few, if any, metaphors), Dreiser. But I think it all began with Hemingway. The Cain book was minimalist, minimalist Naturalism, in terms of dialog, line length, that sort of thing, language, though he does manage a lot of movement in a small space. It’s all that movement that is characteristic of noir, too, I guess. But yeah, to your comment, I had actually snapped a photo with the book on top the toilet tank – thought you might enjoy that! I think I might title my next novel, “Handles.” Beckett has a little book, “Fizzles.”

  2. I’m in awe of people who can fix toilets. Wouldn’t it be fun if you could trace (or make up) some of the hash people as part of your ‘Handles’ book project. They may have had random noire problems while reading the ‘Postman.’

  3. :) Huh, thanks. The hash people, I thought of the lenders over the years, listed with hash marks in the back cover of ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ Wondered if they had plumbing or similar noir mishaps while reading the book.

    • Ah! of course…The hash marks, those who checked out the book at the library. That’s what I get for mixing noir in with toilet; I was thinking you meant hash smoking noir characters, and thinking maybe there was some lit. group I was missing, like Paul Bowles’s “A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard,” about kif smokers in Morocco. But the hash people, that’s funny now. And I was thinking later of this idea of irony mixed up with class distinctions having something to do with noir. “The Necklace,” for example, de Maupassant’s story. Mathilde, never satisfied with what her husband can provide, borrows an expensive necklace to attend a ball, loses the necklace, borrows to buy a replacement, forcing her and her husband into servile work to pay off the debt, one day runs into the lender, tells her the truth about what happened to the necklace, and is told, “oh, you poor dear, that necklace was paste!” Gogol’s “Overcoat,” similar idea. Several levels of irony, one being that the “borrowers” look up to the “lenders,” but the lenders are every bit as noir as everyone else, given the chance. BTW…a little background on my affinity for plumbing:
      http://joelinker.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/e-b-white-and-the-plumber/

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