The question is perverse but irresistible: What would James Wolcott, the chronically disappointed cultural critic, make of "The Catsitters"--the debut of James Wolcott, the novelist? In nearly three decades of acid commentary on arts and letters, the author has earned a fearsome reputation going after the heavy hitters, flinging his withering epithets with all the facility and softheartedness of a ninja. Philip Roth's "misanthropy runs even deeper than his misogyny," Wolcott once wrote. The prose of Salman Rushdie, he recently confided to an interviewer, is "bad in a totally bombastic way." William Gass, he has opined, is "guilty of overacting ... he hogs the page," though the postmodern titan manages to elude the most lovingly poisoned arrows in Wolcott's critical quiver. "It is difficult to resist quoting [Susan] Faludi's sentences," he observed in a review of the feminist scholar's latest effort. "They are so awful."
Of course, just because Wolcott's day job entails the regular skinning of literary lions doesn't mean he's obliged to compete on their level when he decides to take his own stab at a sustained narrative. He's perfectly entitled to write whatever kind of novel happens to be burning deep within his heart; it would be petty to demand that he be held to some higher aesthetic or intellectual standard simply because he spends so much energy cataloging everyone else's aesthetic and intellectual near-misses. And yet one finishes "The Catsitters" feeling a bit cheated, robbed of the opportunity to see whether Wolcott has always had some sort of paradigmatic novel in mind when blithely skewering the work of others. It's as if a famously dyspeptic art critic like Robert Hughes or Hilton Kramer had gamely promised to produce a painting of his own after all those years of sniping, then preemptively defanged the pack of salivating art-world wolves by unveiling a perfectly pleasant, Marriott-ready landscape of Martha's Vineyard at sunrise.
Ultimately, there's nothing fatally "wrong" with "The Catsitters." Wolcott has rather brilliantly indemnified himself against criticisms of overreaching by producing a story so light, so frothy, so dutifully by-the-book that it's beyond analyzing in any culturally relevant way. He has, in other words, aimed low and hit his mark squarely. It's just as cute as it can be, this story of a lovable regular guy journeying through modern Manhattan in search of that one special girl. In Johnny Downs, the novel's actor-bartender protagonist, Wolcott has created a character every bit as complex and appealing as any of the attractive male leads on the sitcom "Friends." In fact, almost everything about this novel seems Hollywood-pre-approved, from the vaguely glamorous Gotham scenery to the wisecracking best buddy to the essential plot trajectory: Boy strikes out with girls, boy enlists wacky female friend to "train" him how to win with chicks, boy embarks on picaresque romantic adventure before learning how to get the girl of his dreams ... "just by being himself."
Deflated after the breakup of a long relationship, Johnny seeks counsel from Darlene, his long-distance, strictly platonic soul mate. Since Darlene lives in the South, she's naturally a font of sassy back talk and colorful aphorisms, not to mention keen insights into the mysterious workings of the human heart.
Capitalizing on the rare opportunity to realize what must be an all-too-common female fantasy--transforming the schlub into the smoothie--Darlene embarks on a crusade to whip Johnny into marriage material via a strict regimen of gentlemanly conduct, good grooming habits, an updated home-decorating sensibility and an array of counterintuitive dating and sexual maneuvers.
"Johnny," she moans after niftily summarizing the Electra complex and its rich erotic exploitability, "the thing you don't seem to understand about yourself is that you're a lousy bachelor, but would probably make a 'not-bad husband.' Why fight it?"
Wolcott must be given credit for the invention of Darlene, who governs the proceedings like a slightly batty, Southern-fried Hera. While physically removed from the action, she nevertheless determines much of it through artful machination and the curious emotional influence she wields over Johnny, her willingly manipulable subject. Unfortunately, after presenting us with all the components of this fascinating psychodrama, the author inexplicably folds. We follow Johnny as he pursues new love interests and quasi-love interests, but the only relationship we care anything about is the one he shares with Darlene. And then, instead of taking us further into these murky waters--something a braver novelist would have done--Wolcott walks away, as if too daunted by the idea of pitting Ms. Pygmalion against her idealized creation in the last act. We're left with Johnny, whose salvation in the arms of a swell new girlfriend seems pat and anticlimactic. Our investment in his character has been a small one; the dividend it pays is proportional.
The perverse and irresistible questions linger: Was this really the novel that Wolcott had in him? Was the story of poor lovelorn Johnny Downs tormenting its author, demanding to be told? Maybe it was. If so, then qualified congratulations are in order. As a novelistic debut, in aromantic-comedy-set-in-the-big-city genre that's already crowded with look-alikes, "The Catsitters" is a serviceably entertaining boilerplate. Hollywood will likely snap it right up, and with the right marketing campaign it may even become a publishing (and eventual cinematic) sensation, a la "Bridget Jones's Diary." If that's what makes Wolcott happy--and he's a difficult man to please--then by all means, let's try to be happy for him.