Tragedy at the farm: Rainbow’s End by James M. Cain

Reading this punchy novel is a little like spectator sport. The reader spends 200 pages watching trashy, working-class Americans fighting over a bag of money (and the aspirations of what to do with it). It’s like a crass ‘social experiment’ documentary screened on Channel 4. But Cain’s achievement is that while the people in this novel are entirely fictional, their portrayal is infinitely more accurate than that of any reality TV participant.

Cain expertly captures the spirit of his characters: a young man, aspirant yet nailed to his lot; his mother, a self-righteous, dysfunctional wench; and the air stewardess who literally drops into their lives, a Machiavellian glamour puss with a strategy. Plus sundry, well-drawn cast members: the weasely lawyer, the hick cousin and the wise and moral aunt. All you need is a bag of money thrown in and you can see how the shit hits the fan.

Cain’s skill is in setting up a plot that the reader stupidly thinks is relatively straightforward. Clearly, everything will be solved, I thought – having no idea how wondrously complex and dynamic the twisted plot would become.

The pages of Rainbow’s End are rich with punchy, bitchy dialogue. Between these lines – and this is Cain’s class – the author treats to almost universal insights: the desire to leave behind our lives and start anew, the promise of the future, and how this is dampened by the curse of the past. Rainbow’s End may be an American thriller, but there’s definitely something of the Greek tragedy about it.

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