Every bachelor actor-bartender living in New York City needs a female friend to serve as a sounding-board, advisor and drill sergeant. Johnny Downs, the protagonist of James Wolcott's The Catsitters, has a doozy in Darlene Rider. Though she lives in Georgia and dispenses counsel over the phone, Darlene's presence in this novel reverberates loudly. She advises Johnny on dating, analyzes Polaroid photos he sends of his potential love interests and ships a pair of eccentric women to watch his cat while he's out of town. Despite Darlene's protestations to the contrary, Johnny seems to do OK for himself, as a succession of attractive women filter in and out of his life (though more often out than in).
By observing Johnny's daily habits, we become familiar with the routine of the ordinary actor - tend bar at parties, audition, shoot corny commercials and repeat the cycle ad nauseum. The story itself seems simple enough, revolving around Johnny's search for romance and all the usual complications accompanying such a quest. Yet in the hands of Wolcott, literary critic for Vanity Fair, a possibly mundane plot becomes incessantly interesting. This is a funny book, almost anthropological in its insights into contemporary mating rituals. Wolcott offers balanced perspectives from both genders, with extended sections of dialogue between Johnny and Darlene; the author refuses to choose sides, instead allowing us to witness a sardonic battle of the sexes. Readers who have participated in the dating game will chuckle knowingly with nearly every page. Not only does Johnny's narrative voice sparkle with a dry, almost deadpan wit, but this intermittently employed actor proves a genuinely likable guy: funny, sincere, a cat lover - someone we can root for.
A host of characters season the story: Gleason, Johnny's best friend and fellow actor who drops sarcastic comments regarding romance and alcohol, and Claudia, the stunning, haughty actress who haunts Johnny with her frequent appearances and disappearances. All help push the narrative forward, adding generous dollops of quirkiness to the book. Wolcott doesn't pretend to have any great answers to the question what is love? but he does offer us a few suggestions, neatly packaged as an entertaining comic novel.
Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.