Friday, October 29, 2010
Everyone goes through hopefully brief periods of intense upheaval in their lives. I worked with a woman who, in the space of less than a year, started a new job, suffered the loss of a close family member, had to adopt the family member's young son, discovered she was pregnant (with twins!) and had to move from the United States to Australia. The fact that she was able to handle these seismic changes with fortitude, good humor and grace is a testament to her and a lesson to me for when I get upset that someone has taken the stapler from my desk and not put it back.
Rat Girl is musician Kristin Hersh's memoir of the tumultuous year she turned 19, during which her band Throwing Muses moved from playing in seedy clubs to recording their first album, she was diagnosed as bipolar and put on medication, and she found out she was pregnant. It's no roman a clef; Hersh would rather write about her love of swimming, which leads her to sometimes sneak into stranger's backyards to use their pools, than offer any information about the father of her baby. It's an impressionist memoir of her life almost 20 years ago, one that appears intimate but is actually rather removed. To paraphrase George Carlin, she's only telling you what she wants you to know.
However, what she is telling you is interesting and not just for her fans, though they will appreciate the book's inclusion of song lyrics where appropriate, as a way of underlining the lyric's inspiration. "Oh that's what that means. It makes sense now." The sections dealing with the band are memorable not because they tell you anything new about the band, but because they remind you of what it was like to be young and ride around in a junky car with too many friends, everyone sitting on each others' laps to make room. But it's Betty Hutton who steals the show, as she was wont to do.
Kristin Hersh and 1940s film star Betty Hutton being college friends is one of those unfathomable historical pairings, like Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones being college roommates, but their scenes together are Rat Girl's highlights. Whether smoking in a bathroom as Hutton's moods travel 360 degrees or recounting Hutton trying to teach showbiz style to Hersh, who affects a deer-in-headlights blank stare onstage, it is an affectionate portrait of someone who had once been one of America's biggest stars. After finishing the book, I wanted more Betty and began seeking out her movies on Turner Classic Movies. Her eagerness to entertain an audience is a revelation. I can't imagine a better tribute.