Monday, June 4, 2007

Books: Who Sleeps With Katz, by Todd McEwen

The first piece of quality 21st century literature that I've come across is Who Sleeps With Katz. Slurp up your grain of salt because it's true—I'm not a big reader of new releases—but that's generally because writers writing today aren't very good. McEwen is brilliant.

Our narrator, MacK, is a smoker having a love affair with old New York. He lives in a predominantly Jewish Upper West Side co-op, has a friend named Isidore who lives downtown, and has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. The novel, a wandering thread of memories attached to martinis, meals, and cigarettes, hallways and rooms and buildings, progresses with the ambling speed and direction (or lack thereof), the fleeting attachment to detail, of a walk through Manhattan's streets. It's not a cancer book, and it's not a neurotic New Yorker book (McEwen no Roth, to be sure, despite the way MacK's time in the city has made him into something of a wannabe-Jew). Instead, it is volume that is light and thick simultaneously, like good custard, properly gelled, in which images and emotions cling to details the way pipe smoke's sweet scent lodges in the pile of an old velvet smoking chair.

MacK's memories are most often tied to cigarettes, and his constant invocation of brand names quickly reveals itself as an incredibly efficient and emotion-packed way to describe places and people; Silk Cuts in London, True at the deli where he fanatically purchases bologna sandwiches that he carries afterward in his pockets. He describes a woman who went through college "on a sea of Schlitz," looking for her Marlboro Man. The brand name is something that is used more and more in postmodern fiction (most prominently, of course, in DeLillo's White Noise), and it's something that always connects for me. The last fifty years of advertising have installed such intense emotional responses in us that it is now more potent to cite a woman's box of Virginia Slims than her haircut or her bosom, her career or her alma mater. McEwen, though, trumps DeLillo and everyone else by zeroing in on primarily one white stick of ephemera, rather than glossing over the entire world of consumer packaged goods and their jingles.

I can't help but recall Damien Hirst's amazing Dead Ends Died Out, a shallow, shelf-lined glass case, in which hundreds of cigarette butts stand on their blunted heads, mostly smoked down to their brown filters. One can get up close enough to read the tiny print ringed around each—lots of Silk Cut (Hirst being English, and, perhaps furthermore, a benefactee of advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi who once was most famous for his Silk Cut ads), but plenty of Camels, Marlboros, Kents, etc. Not only am I not a smoker, but I loathe the habit, and as a child would steal cigarettes from my father's shirt pocket, rip them up, and flush them down the toilet (I was afraid he would die from lung cancer). And yet, the tenderness of Hirst's piece is the same as the tenderness of McEwen—an attachment that becomes a key or a trigger for recollection: the taste of a woman's mouth, her lipstick on the filter. It is concise and evocative, and thereby poetic. It is a foul and hideous habit with an intensely aesthetic life.

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