Well, they do say karma’s a bitch.
I fell heir to a first edition hard cover copy of this classic 1934 crime fiction. It’s too well worn to be a collector’s item, so instead of selling it, I decided to just enjoy holding a book in my hands that could have been held, hypothetically, by my great-grandparents. I think I enjoyed the crispy yellow pages and the old school print more than I enjoyed the story itself. With wide margins and plenty of dialogue, it was a quick read, and before the weekend was over I’d finished it.
Our protagonist, Frank, is a drifter that does odd jobs and occasional crimes as he travels through Mexico and the Western USA; the story itself is set in California. He comes to an out-of-the-way place where a Greek immigrant and his wife run a small roadside restaurant. The owner is interested in expanding the business to include car repair, and hopes that a free meal and a bed for the night will lure Frank to stick around and work for him. Instead, Frank stays and finds a white-hot attraction to Cora, the owner’s wife. The two of them make love like cats in a pillowcase, snarling and biting and tearing at each other, and they like it so well that they decide to kill the Greek guy so they can do it together forever.
Those that don’t follow history may not know that at the time this story was published, U.S. xenophobia toward immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was at its pinnacle. Jim Crow and the Klan had silenced any open dissent from African-Americans with a reign of terror, but it was somewhat commonplace for Caucasians, who were by far the largest group in terms of population and certainly in terms of power and money, to make nasty assumptions and references about people from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the surrounding area.
So it’s within that context that Cora declares that although her husband Nick loves her and treats her really well, he repulses her because he’s “a little soft greasy guy with kinky hair”. He wants her to have his baby, and she doesn’t want to touch him. She’d hate to go back to turning tricks, but she would far prefer to be with fair, blonde-haired Frank than Nick Papadakis.
The story arc here is flawless, and I can see how it became a classic, but it has many aspects that haven’t aged well. There are nasty remarks about Mexicans; Cora urgently wants Frank to know that she’s white, even though her hair is dark. She isn’t “Mex”. And although I understand that some people do like rough sex, I had to take a deep breath when Frank became aroused and showed it by blacking Cora’s eye for her.
Right. So you see what I mean.
The way the story is plotted is ingenious, and the characters are consistent all the way through; the ending is brilliantly conceived and executed.
For me, though, one reading is enough.