Like a hard-eyed cop securing a midtown crosswalk for an adorable gaggle of ducklings, James Wolcott’s killer reputation precedes his first novel, The Catsitters. The warnings continue: No less a terrorist than Camille Paglia is featured on the jacket, hailing Wolcott as “the supreme American culture critic.” But writing against expectation, Vanity Fair‘s longtime ornament and professional curmudgeon (as well as the funniest writer ever to get his start at The Village Voice) has chosen to reveal his inner cuddle-bunny with a fluffy comedy about heterosexual dating and feline mortality in blandest Manhattan.
Fans may be nonplussed. An offhandedly mean joke about Rex Reed aside, The Catsitters is less pungent than Sex in the City, sweeter than Bridget Jones’s Diary, and not even as acerbic as the average Seinfeld rerun. It’s a sort of Boy Scout manual, albeit written with the painstaking care that Flaubert lavished on Madame Bovary. Johnny Downs, the novel’s genial thirtysomething hero, is an underemployed actor with a jukebox in his living room and a cat named Slinky to whom he is meant to be touchingly devoted. One of the most self-effacing thespians to strut the stage, Johnny is a generally chivalrous gent who enjoys his nightly bubble bath but finds himself plunged into a more turbulent maelstrom with the discovery that his dishy girlfriend—an advertising executive no less—has been cheating on him, as well as negligent in her duties toward Slinky.
Bruised, bewildered, and back in circulation, Mr. Downs—why not call him Comrade Ludes or Señor Prozac?—is coached in all subsequent affairs of the heart by his long-distance phone-friend Darlene. A theatrical world wherein everyone appears to be a card-carrying heterosexual aside, this sassy, scheming Southern belle is Wolcott’s most improbable creation—an inexhaustible fount of pop psychology and related forms of feminine wiles who, evidently working on a doctorate in Mojo Studies, makes it a personal project not simply to recharge Johnny’s babe-magnetism but to burnish his marriageability. Aware of his proclivities, she warns him that he’s “picked up so many bad bachelor habits over the years that they’ve formed a bathtub ring around you that women can see.”
Appearances are all. Following Darlene’s instructions as dutifully as he cleans the Slinkster’s litter box, Johnny does everything from redecorate his pad with new shower curtains to order personal name cards (“cream or ivory, with blue letters”) to volunteer his services at a neighborhood church complete with crusty old padre. As La Paglia might put it, Johnny is New York’s supreme Mr. Niceguy. He’s also something of a bore. All of his antisocial impulses and most of the author’s nasty observations are assigned to the fellow actor who plays his best friend.
Sound like fun? The Catsitters is neither a fiasco nor a triumph—or rather, like Johnny’s Darlene-guru’d dates, it might be construed as a cautious victory for human decency. Discounting an excursion home to Johnny’s Maryland family that gives him a chance to be even nicer but crashes into the book like a chunk of exposition that escaped the gravity of another, more confessional novel, the narrative is perfectly self-contained. The structure, too, is mildly self-reflexive: Darlene’s direction goes entertainingly awry but the actor turns creator. Johnny himself writes a play for which he might well be grateful that Wolcott wasn’t the reviewer.
Ditto The Catsitters. This is a book of fastidiously written sentences, B-material descriptions (some of them as mind-numbingly detailed as anything in Alain Robbe-Grillet), and unshowy metaphors: A woman appears in “a canary-yellow dress that positively sang,” Johnny shops in a household emporium filled with “couples pushing shopping carts like covered wagons across the West.” The cultural references are no less circumspect—Vertigo, Warhol, Petticoat Junction—and you know that Johnny has found the One when he refers to her as a Jane Austen heroine.
Unfortunately, careful writing and a measure of wry wit notwithstanding, The Catsitters is closer to Jane than Austen. The novel is bizarrely filled with helpful hints—on personal grooming, home decorating, and relationship maintenance—seemingly culled from a decade’s worth of women’s magazines. Presented as a kind of Olympic tryout, the big sex scene is also didactic, albeit a bit stressful; you can sense the author’s relief at finally having gotten that out of the way. The party tips are best: “Take an empty quart carton of milk, cut off the top, and fill with water. Then insert the bottle into the water and stick in the freezer, and voilà, a bottle of vodka in a block of ice.”
Wolcott eschews the exclamation point that would have naturally capped this recipe in its original form, but, nice as he is, he can’t help adding, “Plant two of these babies on the bar, and you have yourself the beginnings of a certified blast.” Good Golly Miss Molly. If you’re looking for more illicit hilarity, it might not be a bad idea to have at least one of those babies on hand when you crack this book.