Advice for Unmarried Men Clogs Critic’s Toothless Novel

The Catsitters , by James Wolcott. HarperCollins, 314 pages, $25.

“The Perfectibility of Man! Ah heaven, what a dreary theme! The perfectibility of the Ford car!” That’s D.H. Lawrence launching his wonderfully acid essay on Benjamin Franklin. Fervent belief in the perfectibility of man–these days we call it “self-help”–is one of our more embarrassing national traits. But Ben Franklin (Lawrence calls him “the first downright American”) wasn’t just out to perfect himself; he wanted to improve everybody else, too. With his lists of virtues and those perky maxims in Poor Richard’s Almanac , Franklin set up a “dummy of a perfect citizen.” He fed us lines like “Honesty is the best policy.” Lawrence refuses to swallow the lesson: “I dislike policy altogether,” he says. “I’m not going to be turned into a virtuous little automaton as Benjamin would have me.”

In his baffling first novel, the brilliant and irascible James Wolcott shows us a man who allows himself to be improved–and yes, it’s a dreary theme. The Catsitters is meant to be a comic novel about the tribulations of single men (check out the jacket copy: “Suppose Bridget Jones had a twin brother … “), but it’s actually a plodding first-person narrative that reads like a muted character study. Why should we care about Mr. Wolcott’s narrator, Johnny Downs, the bumbling bachelor who lets himself be repackaged as “marriage material”? Johnny is an actor and a bartender, a regular guy living in a standard-issue downtown apartment, a plausible and boring fellow, a virtuous automaton ready to hoof it through any 12 steps that promise a payoff. He’s nicer than average, but still average, and certainly not someone you want to spend 314 pages with. (Suppose Bridget Jones’ twin brother shared none of her spark or charm ….)

The story begins when Johnny discovers the hard way that he’s been dumped by his girlfriend: He catches her with another man. So Johnny calls his confidante, Darlene Ryder (she lives down in Georgia, which keeps her conveniently offstage), and she declares that he needs her help. Over the phone, in her wise-ass monotone, she spouts her version of The Rules for unmarried guys: “If you men had any idea how many lonely women there are out there you might spend less time feeling sorry for yourselves and more time finding Miss Right.” She keeps hurling advice at Johnny until the reader is begging for mercy. But our dull and dutiful hero doesn’t notice that there’s something unnatural (and unfunny) about Darlene’s obsessive manipulation of his behavior (she’s Ben Franklin on steroids, spinning policy out of thin air)–he’s too busy following directions (“After I jotted down the rest of Darlene’s to-do list …”). He redecorates his apartment to suit feminine sensibilities, modifies his sloppy behavior, hones his sexual technique and eventually lands a new girlfriend, rich, curvaceous Amanda. But Darlene isn’t done fiddling, and as a direct result of her machinations Amanda decamps–though not until she’s slapped Johnny hard, twice.

These twin blows are important, if only because the woman’s percussive anger (“Amanda’s face was raw now, fury and injury joined at the jaws”) reminds us of what’s missing from Johnny’s makeup: He has zero temper. He’s never more than mildly irritated, even when he should by all rights be ripshit. This deficiency is all the more odd because, towards the end of the novel, Mr. Wolcott has Johnny writing a play about a self-help group “for guys who have problems managing their anger.” It turns out there’s a back story to Johnny’s anger deficit: A trip home to Baltimore to visit his dying grandmother establishes that when he was a kid, Johnny’s parents would get drunk and quarrel loudly and violently. “To this day,” he notes, “I’m hypersensitive to noise, particularly of the yelling variety.” Once when he was in college, his mom decided to pound on his brother’s car with a ball-peen hammer: “We both had to carry her twisting and writhing from the front lawn.”

Because the novel is so flat, any hint of hostility stands out in sharp relief. Darlene torpedoes Johnny’s love life; his mother goes berserk; his girlfriend Amanda expresses her “fury” with an open fist; and his cat, Slinky, draws blood with her claws. (Slinky resists with a tremendous show of feline choler the vet’s attempts to administer an oral antibiotic: “I had never seen an animal in such a fury,” marvels mild-mannered Johnny.) The women and the (female) cat get to act out their rage. As for the men, if they ever even feel any rage, they hide it.

And why is Mr. Wolcott himself so even-tempered? Why is his prose so unremarkably readable and bland? Anyone who has seen his Vanity Fair column knows that he’s dangerously funny and mean, a critic who can pack enough dynamite into a sentence to explode even the most heavily armored authorial ego. Why has he muffled himself here? I had hoped at first that he was sneaking up behind the soft-edged ideal of contemporary masculinity–the earnest, huggable variety–and was planning to kick it hard. No such luck. Malleable and patient, kind and forbearing, Johnny gets a nice girl at the end of The Catsitters : another case of virtue rewarded.

Does Mr. Wolcott think that firecracker prose would scare away the novel-reading public? Or is he hoping that a quiet, flavorless novel won’t attract the kind of drubbing he himself is used to handing out? Or is there an element of autobiography here–has he been soaking up the Zen lessons of anger-management therapy? Even a hardened critic can use a little self-help now and then.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.