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James M. Cain's 'Paradise'

January 01, 2012|By James M. Cain

But what do I get? Nothing. For when a gentleman appears at my door, orange peeler in hand, bows gracefully at my halting invitation to come in, removes his hat with the utmost aplomb, enters, sits down easily, and explains in accents that would do credit to a Harvard man that this particular article is manufactured by the O'Peelo Company, and bears the signed guarantee of that firm, handsomely engraved with one extra blade all for ten cents —when that happens, it is hard for me to escape the reflection that what this wight has his mind on is an orange peeler.

Now, right there, I think, I finally get into words my main squawk against this section: the piddling occupations to which the people dedicate their lives. Bear in mind my disclaimer of high-brow leanings, which is honest, and the earthy nature of the intellectual fodder that I ask. I am greatly stimulated by a trapper boy in a West Virginia coal-mine, or a puddler in a Pennsylvania steel-mill, or a hand on a Nebraska corn-farm. These people, although they usually talk a dreadful jargon, are frequently morons, and sometimes anything but admirable personally, all take part in vast human dramas, and I find it impossible to disregard the stature which their occupations confer on them. If they are prosperous, it is big news; if they are hungry, it is tragic; and no matter what their condition is, they share some of the electric importance of the stages they tread

But what electric importance can be felt in a peddler of orange peelers? Or of a dozen ripe avocados, just plucked that morning? Or a confector of Bar-B-Q? Or the proprietor of a goldfish farm? Or a breeder of rabbit fryers? They give me no kick at all. They give themselves no kick. The whole place is overrun with nutty religions, which are merely the effort of these people to inject some sort of point into their lives; if not on earth, then in the stars, in numbers, in vibrations, or whatever their fancy hits on. They are not, as I have hinted, and as I shall show more clearly in a moment, inferior people. Rather the other way around. But they suffer from the cruel feebleness of the play which the economy of the region compels them to take part in.

If it were only possible to create for them a suitable play ar-tificially, as it is possible to fashion a play for childhood, where libraries, schoolhouses, athletic fields, and a few leagues and debating clubs are all that is needed to set things humming —the thing would have been done long ago. But with grown-ups it is not as simple as that. The yarn has to be there. There can be no build-up, as they say in the movies, for the main situation; it cannot be evoked at will, and it cannot be faked. If the voltage cannot be felt, the whole piece falls flat, and it will throw off no jumble of delightful sparks, of the kind we were talking about in connection with Paris.

They not only give themselves no kick, but they have developed, out of the things they do, a curious slant on life, particularly on Labor, which you have no doubt read about and probably misunderstood. For these occupations are not only piddling, but also fly-by-night; none of them seem to pay, and it is unusual to find a man who is doing the same thing now as he did last year. If he has a poultry farm, a few months ago he fixed flats and a few months before that had a news-stand.

This makes for the most incredible incompetence at those routine things that you have always taken for granted. The paperhanger takes five days to do a job that a good man would finish in one; the restaurant has its lights so placed that your head casts a shadow on your plate, making it impossible to see your food; a house, well-defigned otherwise, has one corner of the living-room gouged out to let in a trick stairway, the result being that you cannot lay a rug; the salesman has a persuasive line of talk about the merits of the article, and then has to look on the icebox door to find out the price; the telephone clerk reports that somebody called, but hasn't taken his number so you can call back; the waiter clamps a fork over the spoon when he serves peas, in the elegant manner of an Italian serving asparagus, not noticing that when it is peas he is serving, and not asparagus, this makes them bounce all over the table like shot; the bookstore is sorry, sir, but would have to know the publisher before it could order that book for you, apparently not knowing that the United States Index, which is lying open on the counter, was invented specifically to solve this problem; the apartment-house has it drawers built exactly three inches too short to hold a shirt; the movie impresario wires frantically to New York for a certain writer, only to discover that for a year he has had the varlet on his own lot.

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