|book review: cain's book
This was many years ago when my wife and I
moved to Los Angeles from New York and
installed ourselves in a 7 room apt on Berendo
street for $175 a month. That is correct. My
wife got a job and I opted to stay home and
write—or try to.
Each day I would sit down at the typer to bang
and I would try this sentence and that sentence
and the other sentence but it was no dice.
There was nothing. Writing must have energy.
Here there was the energy of a piece of pocket
lint. It was a form of literary constipation.
But if you cant write you can at least read other
writers who are. I was at Book Soup on Sunset
waiting for my wife to finish work. I picked up
a book—Cains Book. The writer was Alexander
Trocchi. Id heard of this book--From Hank in
San Francisco, fellow writer—or writer wannabe.
He said: I think you would like it. Its brilliant.
There was a blurb on the cover: the genuine
article on the dope addicts life.
The publisher was Grove Press. This was the
sixties and in the sixties there was a particular
kind of writer—the Grove Press writer.
Publishers have something called a stable—like
a horse stable but instead of horses they have
writers. In Groves stable were Henry miller,
Beckett, Jean Genet, Celine, etc—the renegade
outcast types—perverse, nihilistic, scatological.
I read a few bits and pieces. There was a
preface—a quote from Cocteau:
Tout ce qu’on fait dans la vie, meme l’amour, on le fait
dans le train express qui roule vers la mort. Fumer l’
opium, c’est quitter le train en marche; c’est s’occuper
d’autrechose que de la vie, de la mort
I translate though the French says it better:
Everything we do in life, even to make love, we do on
a train that is rolling towards death. To smoke opium is
to leave the train en route; to concern ourselves with
other things than life, than death.
Ettie was a thin negress who shot up ten five dollar
bags a day. She pushed everything, clothes, meat and
other valuables she boosted, her own thin chops. “Man
it’s a hassle what you do”, I said to her, “peddling
around town all day with the heat breathing down your
“He kin breathe right up my vagina dear, jist so long as
he don’t bust me”, Ettie said.
Claire was my sister-in-law. She didnt like me. Nor
was I fond of her. MY brother was devoted to her. He
did everything for her and his reward was to receive
the impression he did not exist. She would have
betrayed him for a dry martini.
I liked that line about the martini. It was
I bought the book and knocked it off that
night. It was short but not too short—50,000
words—the perfect length for a book, as Poe
has said, to finish off in one sitting.
Hank was right: an amazing writer.
The book is autobiographical, written in the first
person by Joe, writer/junkie type living on a
barge tied up in the Jersey docks across from
New York. There is no plot. The action such as
it is revolves entirely around Joe and his fellow
junkies shooting dope or, when they are not
doing that, running around in a frazzled state
trying to score for dope. Here and there are
flashbacks to his childhood and some good sex
scenes. Thats the book.
But there was something about it—a rhythm. It
wasnt a linear rhythm. It was a non-linear
rhythm. I was reminded of Beckett and the way
the element of time got bounced around—now
here now there now somewhere else. The
voice was strong--elegant, comic, salacious.
All great art and today all great artlessness must
appear extreme to the mass of men as we know them
today. It springs from the anguish of great souls. From
the souls of men not formed but deformed in factories
whose inspiration is pelf. The critics who call upon the
lost and beat generations to come home, who use the
dead to club the living, write prettily about anguish
because to them it is an historical phenomenon and
not a pain in the arse. But it is pain in the arse and we
wonder at the impertinence of governments which by
my own experience and that of my father and his
father before him have consistently done everything in
their power to make individuals treat the world situation
lightly, that they should frown on the violence of my
imagination—which is a sensitive responsive
instrument—and set their damn police on me who has
not stirred from this room for 15 years except to cop
I went to the library to further investigate this
Trocchi character but the pickings were slim. He
had written Cains Book and another called
Young Adam—long out of print. Also a handful
of porno novels while living in Paris for Maurice
Girodias—Olympia press—the European version
There was reference to a writers conference in
Scotland organized to discuss the current state
of Scottish letters and Trocchi was invited to
participate and his turn arrived to speak and he
said: the greatest Scottish writer is me.
One of the other participants, a poet, Hugh
McDiarrmid referred to him as “cosmopolitan
And that was it. Some years later, many years
later, a movie was made from Young Adam and
a modest revival of interest in Trocchi was the
result. Cain's Book was reissued in a new
edition and a few copies of the porno novels—
White Thighs, Helen and Desire, Thongs—could
be had at an inflated price on eBay
The movie, not a bad film, in fact a good film,
flopped. I was curious to know, tho I never did
know, how much the writer of the script got
paid. My guess is much more than Trocchi ever
made for anything--or everything--he ever
Meanwhile there on the internet I came across
a piece written for An English mag—The
Guardian--to coincide with the release of the
film that filled in some of the holes bio-wise.
Trocchi was Scottish, or Scottish/Italian, born in
Glasgow in 1925. He attended the university,
married young and had two children. He wanted
to write and in view of this, in his opinion,
Scotland was a loser. The action was in Paris.
Once in Paris two things happened. He met
Beckett and acquired a girlfriend—an American
with money. The money was important because
he had conceived a plan—to publish a magazine.
Writers write to publish and if the publishers
decline—you can always publish yourself. Why
Trocchi had a gift. He had two gifts. He had the
writing gift and he had the hustling gift. He had
charisma—a terrific magnetism that drew
people into his orbit and this he combined
with gift #3—the ability to manipulate these
people to satisfy his needs which were: sex,
Any journalistic enterprise needs an angle and
he had one—the existential angle. It was the
fifties in Paris— and there was a mood—the
existential mood. Existentialism is a slippery
concept that can be interpreted in this way,
that way or the other way but however you
interpret it the one word that will never apply
is: optimism. The war had finished that one
So that was the angle and in view of this the
writers he chose to zero in on to get the mag
rolling were the Olympia/Grove Press type—
Beckett, Genet, Robbe-Grillet.
He had a name for the mag—Merlin
The life span of the average small press literary
magazine is measured not in years but issues.
They are issued monthly or quarterly or
annually and if you manage to give birth to a
half dozen numbers of the publication before
your money or your enthusiasm expires—youre
doing ok. Merlin held on for 3 years and during
that time established a bit of reputation—for
the quality of the writing and the brilliant--and
brilliantly erratic--behavior of the editor.
By this time he was on the junk, his wife and
children had returned to England and less of his
time was spent writing and more hanging out
in cafes playing pinball. He was a drug addict
and a pinball addict. He writes of the game in
In the pinball machine an absolute and peculiar order
reigns. No skepticism is possible for the man who by a
series of sharp and slight dunts tries to control the
machine. It became for me a ritual act. Man is serious
at play. Apart from jazz the pinball machine seemed to
me to be Americas greatest contribution to culture; it
rang with contemporaneity. The distinction between the
French and American attitude towards the “tilt” (teelt”);
in America, and England, I have been upbraided for
trying to beat the machine by skillful tilting. In Paris
that is the whole point.
That was the first phase—the Paris phase. The
second phase occurred in New York. It seems a
questionable move for a junkie to relocate from
Europe—that adopts a much more permissive
attitude towards dope—to a country such as
this—the US—with the most penal and pitiless
laws concerning this evil habit.
But here he was living on a barge, scoring for
dope and trying to write a novel—Cains Book.
He had a new girlfriend—a hooker. She wasnt a
hooker when they met. She became a hooker
after Trocchi turned her on to junk and
now there was a double habit to support and
this was the solution--for her to become a
hooker—they arrived at.
He had a contract to write a book for Grove
press wangled by an editor—Dick Seaver—a
Trocchi groupie from the Paris days.
Trocchi as I say was a master con artist who by
this time had burned half a dozen publishers for
advances but not Seaver over at Grove, who
knew his man and kept him on a short leash.
There was no advance. He got paid by the
This was the book that became Cains Book.
After that not much. He got busted for drugs—
not only using but dealing. Seaver got him
sprung on bail that he promptly forfeited by
fleeing the country, first to Canada and then
back to Europe, this time to England.
Yeah—the joint. That wasn’t for me. I remember Geo
getting busted. The girl he was living with finked on
him and one day they came pushing him back into his
room, treating him like cattle.
“Ok Falk, we’ve come for you. Where’s your stash
This time they put him in the Tombs. If anything had
broken him it was kicking his habit in the Tombs.
When he thought of it he thought of destiny and he felt
himself without will.
He was in a cell with a young Italian. Geo was in the
bottom bunk. In the top bunk the Italian was sobbing.
Why didn't the bastard shut up? They wouldn’t give
him anything, not even a wet cotton. For a murderer
yes but not for a junkie, a junkie couldn’t even get an
aspirin. Then he felt the wetness on the back of his
hand. Jesus Christ! It was blood. The Italian was
committing suicide. Call the man. The man took a long
time to come and when he came he said: ”Why you
dirty little junkie bastard!” They dragged him out
bleeding at both wrists.
Back in England the writing dried up. There was
the occasional story, review, magazine piece
but the sustained energy and discipline
required to write a book was gone never to
reappear. Once a junkie always a junkie.
At some point, in London, he got into business—
selling books. He was a good businessman,
oddly enough, and was able to make a living
wheeling and dealing in the antiquarian book
trade, working out of a stall in a fleamarket. He
had a new girlfriend, a young girlfriend, the
best kind, and it was in her arms following one
last shot of heroin that he died in 1984, age 58.