James and Cora Bevan are taking a vacation in Jamaica, hoping to patch up their failing marriage which is making both of their lives miserable. But despite their affection for each other, things aren’t looking good for a jump-start to their relationship. To begin with, Cora is cold and distant with her husband, yet warm and flirty with strange burly men. James, however, is a drunk with a death wish, and it was his declining performance at work and the suggestion by his shrink that they came to Jamaica in the first place.
Things are slow for the first half of the book, showcasing the relationship and misery. Near the middle, the Crime in Hard Case finally rears its head, and that’s where the book really begins to move. Stumbling home from a night of pubcrawling through Kingston’s slums, James kills a would-be mugger in self-defense. Blackmail and murder snap James out of his drunken torpor, and he begins trying to do something for the first time in a long while, like he’s realized something about himself or the world. Will this be the catalyst that causes their marriage to pull itself together? Or is this the catalyst for the ultimate downfall and destruction of James and Cora?
I can’t rightly say; the ending is beautifully ambiguous, gritty and yet hopeful, a perfect way to end this fascinating look at two people in a very complex situation. Let’s make no bones about it, these two really did love each other (at first), but their own psychological issues are the cause of their marriage’s rocky destruction. Almost immediately, you realize the dangerous undercurrent between them: James’s bouts of drunkenness, wishing for a loving wife and children and to be a stronger person; Cora’s flirting with other men, even though she realizes she’s unable to become intimately close with anyone.
At first, I thought this book was just another self-destructive tale of a marriage’s drunken, ruined death-spiral. Days of Wine and Roses in a tropical resort. Well, it is, in a way, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Goodis has spun a web encompassing the dark and seedy underbelly of humanity. It’s a portrait of two failed people, neither of whom particularly deserved it. Cora had a tragic event happen to her at a young age, which has damaged her psychologically; not only does she have issues with intimacy, but she had frequent miscarriages. James, stuck with a frigid wife unable to foster a child, had a fling with a prostitute who killed herself after Cora found out and James stopped seeing her; Jim has since crawled into the bottom of a bottle and refused exit.
These are two of the most pitiable fictional human beings I’ve ever read about, and despite the near-melodrama of their woes, it’s done in such a classy way that I truly pitied them. Unlike a lot of self-destructive characters, who are thoroughly unlikable, either as part of the morality play angle or as a way for readers to not get attached to them before they crash and burn. James and Cora are different; they’re everyday people with realistic, if extreme, issues, and their inability to cope with their issues is what drives the drama. Their tale is grim and despondent; Goodis’s writing has a palpable air of melancholia about it. His novels have been compared to suicide notes, and calling him the master of bleak noir understates the definition of bleak.
The cover is fantastic, done by Glen Orbik; not only does he manage to pump out cover after cover for Hard Case, but he does so with amazing style. I’ve always been a fan of his, and this one is no exception. The blues and dark shading echo the book’s muted despondency, and the other little details round everything out: the palm trees of Jamaica, the bottles and glasses of the bar. The positioning of James and Cora is an interesting parallel to the book: they’re so close, yet they can’t even look each other in the eye, and James is more preoccupied with another glass of rum than his pretty wife.
This is not a book for everyone. Goodis is a fantastic writer, but the novel is deeply tragic and melancholic, and that isn’t what everyone reads crime novels for. This is less a book to read for good rip-roaring entertainment, unless you like wallowing in woe, and more a book to read because it is amazingly well done. I’m grateful Hard Case published it, and I feel it’s one of the strongest books in the line, from emotional and literary perspectives. If you don’t mind taking a walk down the darkest side of human misery, through the twisting tunnels of fear and loathing and abject suffering to emerge with the possibility of hope… then read this book. It is a haunting piece of fiction, something that will stick with me for a while.
So if the question is asked What’s it amount to? the answer comes sliding out easily: It’s just a merry go round that stops every now and then for some to get off and others to get on, and no matter how much you pay for your ticket, no matter how many brass rings you snatch, it’s only a matter of time before our place is taken by the next customer emerging from some womb to start the ride. So in the final analysis, it’s merely the process of being taken for a ride, and despite all the bright colors and the hurdy-gurdy music, despite the gleeful yells as the amusement machine goes round and round, the windup is a hole in the ground where the night crawlers get awfully hungry when it rains.