Sistermagpie's Reviews > Serenade

Serenade by James M. Cain
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May 24, 2011

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bookshelves: american-lit, novels
Read in May, 2011

One of the craziest books I've ever read. So crazy it deserves a spoilery synopsis. Spoilers to follow:


Johnny is a down and out American singer in Mexico. Once he was a success in Europe, but he lost his voice and now he's broke. Also he's really bigoted. It's good to be prepared for that instead of hit in the face with his racist description of his love interest, Juana, on the very first page. Juana's a prostitute he steals from a bullfighter, but when he gets to her place and sings to her a bit, she suddenly says he should go.

A few weeks later, though, she asks if he wants a job working in the whorehouse she's planning to start in Acapulco and they set off together. After ditching her parents rudely, they get caught in a rainstorm and take refuge in a church. She describes his singing voice as being like a priest's, which he doesn't appreciate. Then he rapes her (but "only technically, brother," because she totally wants it), and after that they're in love. Even better, his voice comes back!

They go back to America where he starts his career again. He goes into the movies--Swain includes truly hilarious synopsis of fake Hollywood B-movies built around stock footage. His two hits "Woolies" (sheep in the snow) and "Paul Bunyan" (Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade) make him a big star. He even pressures the studio into a pricey contract for 3 pictures. Then the Met calls and wants him to perform opera and he'd rather do that, but the head of the studio tells him opera's finished, see, and he doesn't want him performing. So he takes Juana to New York and performs anyway. He hated Hollywood, especially after he takes Juana to a party and everyone is rude to her (i.e., even more racist than he is!).

This gets him into hot water with his contract, not to mention the radio show that planned a whole ad campaign with him based on the Paul Bunyan "My Pal Babe" number. Enter an old aquaintance, a wealthy producer our hero worked with in Europe before he lost his voice. "Worked with?" Hmmmm...maybe more than that.

Winston, it turns out, kind of owns the studio and is behind a lot of Johnny's troubles. He fixes the contract problem but insists Johnny sing in a big gala he's throwing. Johnny's nervous about performing--what if Juana figures out what's really going on? You might think he was safe since every other one of Juana's lines is "I no understand," but she tumbles to the whole thing right away. Juana might not be able to figure out how to wear a hat or how contracts work how remember it's cold in New York in the winter, but she knows when two men are former lovers.

Remember when Johnny first went to Juana's place and sang for her and she sent him home? It was because she could hear the gay in his voice. Gay men can't sing. Their voices aren't manly. They sing like priests. Or cows. That's why she sent him away. But she did think he'd make a good bouncer at her whorehouse and that's why she contacted him again. Then he raped her and that was very manly and she liked it a lot! (Yes, she actually says this.) So she thought she was wrong. But now Winston is here and he's already losing his voice again. Gay men can't sing! (This must be why Broadway is struggling.)

Not that Johnny is gay, he explains. Every man has 5% of gay in him, and Johnny was just unlucky enough to meet the one guy in the whole world that would bring it out in him. Juana devotes herself to keeping Johnny straight. Winston moves into their building and has gay parties and tries to make Johnny jealous. He invites them to a party while secretly arranging to have Juana deported so he can have Johnny for himself! But they find out about the plan. Juana entertains all the lesbians who act like men and gay men who act like sissies at the party with bullfighting stories and does a mock bullfight with Winston where he's the bull. Then she spears him through the head adn sticks him to the couch. Ole! That's what Johnny wants to cry. She's killed the gay in him! Despite being Mexican and Native American, Juana is awesome!

Now they have to flee. Johnny insists on going with Juana. He struggles with not being able to sing anymore for fear of someone recognizing him. (He even has a brief moment of gay panic when he wonders if he's too admiring of a baseball player--don't worry, Winston took Johnny's shameful gay to the grave with him.) Eventually Juana goes back to Mexico and hooks back up with the bullfighter. He chases her. The bullfighter mocks him for being a fairy, he gets mad and sings in his manly voice (proving he is totally not gay!), he gets recognized and Juana gets killed.

Did I lie? Craziest book ever.
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02/06 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Betsy (new)

Betsy Wow! Yeah, that's pretty crazy right there. Makes me want to read it in a trainwreck sort of way.


Sistermagpie Like moths to a flame. It's so crazy you can't look away!


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