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.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Bob Fingerman

Full disclosure: the author is a friend of mine.

The ability of people at a certain age to use their friends as a surrogate family, especially if they have friends of both genders with different enough personalities to serve various roles within the group, is something that has been noted more than once and not just on sitcoms. But in large cities, the dynamic is different as you have to spend much of your time in close proximity with people you, at best, are indifferent to or, at worst, actively dislike. Pariah is a novel about people who are forced by circumstances (read “zombies”) to depend on people they don’t like very much just to survive. It is an active demonstration of Satre’s idea that “Hell is other people.”

Trapped within an apartment building by streets full of the walking dead, the characters become parodies of urban dwellers who can’t make or do anything themselves because they assume they can always buy whatever they want from a store. Cut off from any stores, they have little else to do but slowly waste away and turn on each other with what little energy they have left. This state of dwindling entropy is eventually interrupted by an inversion of the archetypal modern urban horror story, the murder of Kitty Genovese. In 1964, Ms. Genovese was attacked and ultimately murdered after coming home from her job as a bar manager. It was reported that many of her neighbors heard her scream for help but did nothing because they did not want to get involved. The case became the perfect symbol of how callous and selfish people are in big cities. As is often the case, the truth was more complex and more interesting. One of Genovese’s neighbors did yell down and in fact frightened her attacker away for a while. Another neighbor phoned the police. Later sociological experiments inspired by the case indicated that the more people who are involved in a situation, the less responsibility or control any one individual feels. If something traumatic happens in front of you and no one else is around, you feel the full responsibility of the situation. But if the same event happened and you are part of a crowd, you are more likely to leave the responsibility to someone else. It’s not that “we don’t want to get involved” but “we don’t know what to do but hope someone else will take care of this.”

As mentioned, Pariah breaks the stasis of its trapped apartment dwellers wasting away by introducing Mona, who is the opposite of Kitty Genovese. Instead of being attacked while her neighbors watch, Mona is able to walk the streets without harm, surrounded by the zombies yet somehow repelling them. She is safer in the streets than the people are in their apartment building. It’s not long before she becomes their delivery person, at first picking up the bare necessities like food and water, but soon going on expeditions for items to pass the time and entertain. But once someone’s situation is no longer life-threatening, are they necessarily going to be a better person? How much of our actions are determined by our surroundings?

My only complaints with Pariah have to do with the pacing. The novel is made of three sections and I read it in three sittings, which probably accounts for my sense of impatience with the first third of the book, despite its merits. To wit: it’s hard to keep a situation of hopelessly trapped characters interesting for a length of time. Fingerman uses flashbacks, plot twists and comic scenes to get around this, but my enthusiasm for the book didn’t really begin until Mona’s appearance. I think the final third is the strongest section of the book, as Fingerman’s vision of hell as other people, both living and dead, comes to dominate.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ten Little Indian Boys Went Out To Dine...

Last week I was talking with a friend, someone I had not seen for several months. She had had a very fulfilling summer. It seemed like she hadn’t completely left the season or its experiences yet. Part of her was still there while the rest was talking to me on a rainy night in October in Brooklyn.

She asked what I had done this summer and as often happens when asked such questions, my mind went completely blank. I must be the easiest person in the world to stump: ask me what I’ve been doing recently or what my favorite books are or even what I had for lunch and my mind empties. If only meditation worked this well. I knew I had done some things this past summer but I couldn’t really recall anything specific. Something happened, but it was located within a void in my memory, a void that had a definite shape. It wasn’t until the conversation moved on and she began telling me about a friend with serious health problems that it came back to me. What I Did This Summer. I visited my friend Ben in hospice and said goodbye to him two days before he died.

It has been a terminal couple of months. My nephew lost two friends; one was hit by a car, the other drowned. A sign of the way we live now: within an hour of the boy's drowning, almost all of his friends knew because they texted each other on their cell phones. The days of parents preparing their children for bad news are gone. A co-worker’s father fell to his death while hiking. A friend’s brother died. Ben died, which while not entirely unexpected, was and is still painful. During the 1990s I experienced a similar cycle. I thought of it in terms of concentric circles. I heard of acquaintances losing loved ones, then distant friends, and soon closer friends were experiencing great losses. I recall thinking that death was getting closer and closer to me and being unsettled by the idea. This cycle seemed to end with my father’s death. I’ve known people that have died since then, but the pattern, the sense of the steady approach, was gone.

I don’t see any pattern now. It’s random and chaotic, which means you never know when you’re going to get hit. A co-worker has developed Bell’s Palsy. Last night, a bartender at my favorite dive bar told me that his sister has been in the hospital for quite some time. She’s been developing blood clots and her doctors cannot figure out why. “I’m really sorry,” he added. “People are supposed to tell their problems to the bartender, not the other way ‘round.” With all this going on, it’s no wonder I can’t remember what I’ve been doing for the last few months.