It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Whirl : KISS OUT <i> by Jill Eisenstadt (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 343 pp.) </i>
“Kiss Out,” Jill Eisenstadt’s second novel, is an extended game of romantic musical chairs, and there’s no point in trying to describe the plot. It involves love-sotted twin boys from Queens, a rich virgin, a boy who sings with his family’s band (the Bouncetones) and a tough girl who never shows up twice with the same hair color. There’s a poodle hidden in a cake. There’s a bird-smuggling trip to the Yucatan, a kidnaping and a canister of human ashes that must, for various reasons, be taken along on a date. There’s an old hairdresser who restyles his wife’s hair in her casket.
That’s not a tenth of the characters and events. Suffice to say that, like any decent comedy, “Kiss Out” is manic on the surface and concerned, at its heart, with matters of grave importance, love and death among them.
Eisenstadt does a good job of keeping the plot moving. Or, more accurately, she keeps the plot’s battalions of elements from colliding with one another. After so many stories of anomie in trailer parks, the plain old-fashioned juiciness of Eisenstadt’s story is gratifying. It’s courageous of her to write something rambunctious and overloaded. And for all its immensity, the plot is nicely balanced. There are smart little parallels, innocent events planted on Page 5 that flower on Page 200. She’s a true storyteller.
Still, I kept wondering why a story so tightly packed wasn’t more compelling.
The problems, I think, lie with the writing and character development. Eisenstadt’s prose is hip and brash but never beautiful, not even perversely beautiful. Beauty isn’t one of its aims, but still, I felt the lack. She’s writing about a cheesy, claustrophobic world in which the Mexican jungle is really just Queens with fewer hair salons. Seen from atop a pyramid in the Yucatan, the treetops are “like plush golden-green high-pile carpeting.” A toucan’s beak is “bright as plastic.”
The prose matches Eisenstadt’s sense of the world: flashy, haphazard and about as profound as a Dixie cup. Her style is resolutely conversational. Characters don’t forget, they “space.” They don’t drink, they “guzzle.” There’s a certain pleasure in writing of this sort. It’s completely unpretentious. It has a hard, modern sparkle. It doesn’t struggle to summon up any tired old workhorses like transcendence or wonder. But the deeper I got into the book, the more I found myself thinking of Gertrude Stein’s maxim, “Remarks are not literature.”
The story is always being told . While it amuses, it never startles or pierces you; it never takes on the rampant, self-propelled quality of real life. The book stays stubbornly between its covers. It doesn’t follow you out of your room and into the street.
Creating living characters and setting them down in a credible world may be the hardest of all fiction’s tricks, and Eisenstadt has real talent in that direction. She gets the details; she does the conjuring. Here is Great-Uncle Hersh, who arrives for the holidays smelling “of closets (he probably doesn’t need the coat in Miami), of hair tonic (with which his few remaining strands have been strategically arranged), and of that miscellaneous other (just plain oldness?). Uncle Hersh was always old, and his coat was always an old man’s coat.”
She does things like that frequently. Most pages contain something vivid, a person or place adroitly and utterly nailed. So I wanted Eisenstadt to go the final distance. I wanted her to care about these people more than she cared about her ability to peel them like ripe fruit.
She seems to be moving in the right direction. Her first novel, “From Rockaway,” wanted to be a new kind of noir opera, and fell flat. It had an unintentional pulpy quality, like what Jacqueline Susann might have written if she’d written about poor people. The high-flown force of “Kiss Out” better exploits Eisenstadt’s gifts. She’s onto something. She could write an important comedy about the junkiness of our lives right now, the way Preston Sturges wrote and directed important comedies about money and class in the ‘40s.
At this point, though, her work feels young in its determination to always know better, to never embarrass itself, to avoid sentimentality at all costs. The characters, while lively, are savaged, especially the older ones. A mother appears at an engagement party exhaling “champagne and Bloody Mary breath,” and, when she bullies a young man into dancing with her, her “upper lip sweats beige under numerous layers of pancake makeup.” These feel like the observations of a smart adolescent, murderous as only an adolescent can be. In this book, as in her first, Eisenstadt is so hip that she finally defeats her own material.
There’s considerable sentiment these days to the effect that we’ve gotten so lost in a world awash in crap that our literature can only dwell on the outermost parts of people and the sorry places they inhabit.
I believe the opposite. If we’re drowning in our own tepid discharge, it seems all the more important that our literature resonate; that writers, even (or especially) the funny ones, try to separate characters’ souls from their more readily apparent urges to eat, shop, and try out new ways of doing their hair. In her next book, I hope Eisenstadt will direct her talent more toward that end.