Friday, October 29, 2010

Rat Girl

Rat Girl
Kristin Hersh

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.


Iva said...

I have two questions, John, and I am not trying to be a wise guy. But who is or was Kristin Hersh? What was the year she was 18? Should I know her? I certainly remember Betty Hutton but I've never heard of Kristin.
The other question is about your new page...I don't understand it. What is it supposed to mean? And, please believe me, I am not trying to be a smart ass. I don't know.

the hanged man said...

Don't think you're being a wiseguy at all.

Kristin Hersh was the driving force behind the band Throwing Muses. She's around my age, so she would have been 18 in the early 80's. At the time Betty Hutton would have been in her early sixties. You might like some of Hersh's music, but other songs would probably send you running for the exit.

The new page is an illustration by Nika Goltz for the book "Town in a Snuffbox." I hadn't heard of the book before but liked the picture when I saw it on the Journey Round My Skull blog. More are here:

Iva said...

Thank you for the explanation about Kristin.
And thank you so much for sending the web site for Nika Goltz's illustrations...they are wonderful!
My first thought when I looked at your page was that the picture was from a cover of the New Yorker. I loved the illustration and, now that I see it in its proper context, I love it even more!