HERE KITTY KITTY
by Jardine Libaire
A non-review by J. Stefan-Cole
not the one who started the comparison, Jardine Libaire's
character, Lee, in her novel, HERE KITTY, KITTY; Little,
Brown & Company, 2004, to Truman Capote's heroine, Holly
Golightly. The comparison is there to be made, right down
to the device of a cat as potential savior. I've always
assumed Holly Golightly was really meant to be written as
a beautiful, androgynous male, a glamorous, free-spirited
queen, and that Capote had to use subterfuge, created a
girl, because in 1950 when the book came out Holly, wild,
irreverent girl that she is, had the potential to raise
fewer eyebrows as a she than as a he. Those were even more
viciously conservative times than today's viciously conservative
times. I'm sure I didn't start that take on Holly either,
a guy written as a girl for safety sake. Nor am I suggesting
Libaire's Lee is really meant to be a he, though the name
does have that go both ways potential, and Lee does wander
some fierce Brooklyn streets alone at hours that would make
even Rambo turn cautious.
Wait, hang on, I think I got off to a bad start. This book
is bejeweled with raw talent. I should have opened with
that instead of making comparisons with a deceased author.
But why not? Why not an homage, a hip re-make of Holly Golighty?
(We're not given a last name for Lee, so she will never
enjoy the boost that Capote's character got for the sheer
quotability of her name, not to mention Audrey Hepburn using
it in a caricature of the book, BRAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, on
the silver screen.) Libaire sets her novel in Williamsburg,
Brooklyn, which happens to be this writer's home turf. No,
like Lee, I was not born here, but I've been here long enough
to see the Lee's come and go, or come and change the feel
of the 'burg, the shift from arty bohemian to hip to ultra-hip
to nouveau riche. Lee's story fits in somewhere between
the hip and the ultra-hip; the Trade Towers are still standing,
and there is a lingering flicker of innocence to Lee's bad
girl style. Innocence lost being one of the book's themes.
As Lee says, emerging from a lit up stupor, beginning to
catch on, "They forgot to teach us in school that the
responsible thing, eventually, was to let go of dreams.
They let us believe it was noble to pursue the impossible.
They left us to discover compromise on our own."
She is deep in a hole, both financially and emotionally.
She realizes the former, her landlord is giving her two
weeks, as the book opens, to pay him back rent or her junk
furniture and second hand clothes (she also has originals,
like a Fendi fur and Helmut Lang spikes) will be tossed
onto the street. These are filthy streets, too, and she
lives next to a highway, "I crossed under the B.Q.E.,
dust hanging in late sun. The pavement smelled sweetly of
human urine. I stepped lightly around condoms, rainwater
rainbowed with gasoline, bottles." Lee has lived the
life, credit-carded her way to a fifty thousand dollar tab.
What wasn't spent on late night high jinks went up her nose
or down her throat. Lee is not an investment broker, either,
slumming on weekends, high on the hog, until the urge to
settle down hits. She's the manager of a posh restaurant
in Manhattan, and, before a loser, live-in boyfriend named
Kai suddenly split, she'd had aspirations as a painter.
So, she's having her trashy fun, and she's tough and getting
tougher and more and more pointless when her sugar Daddy,
Yves, steps in. He's an antiseptic sort of lover, but he
cares in his way if only because Lee is such an original
oddity in his world. Yves says he'll bail her out, and things
could begin to look up. Purr, kitty, purr. Fine, but Lee
offers no guarantees. She is still generally heading for
the toilet with two choices in front of her, both involving
burnout. She can either become granite hard, lose all vulnerability,
and with it her painting genii-if he's not already dead-or
she can shack up with Yves and lead a gilded life of material
nothingness. Quel dilemma, as Holly Golightly might say.
The painter genii thing is evidenced in Lee in a technicolor
awareness of her surroundings. To that end, the impressionistic
world Lee inhabits, Libarie uses the word turquoise thirteen
times. I started counting. It's a word that sticks out.
The book is only two hundred-one pages long, and that is
not quite accurate because there are huge white gaps on
most pages. The writing is staccato, and pronoun-phobic
at times, which works, gives the jerky feel of a camera
following Lee around the city, her jumpy mental states,
her druggy reality, though this reader did begin to long
for just one filled-out passage, didn't have to be lyrical,
but I kept going through the kaleidoscope of sensory input
hoping for a longer look while dominated by turquoise-a
word that, like the jewelry when worn too often, just refuses
to lie down on the page. "Black nail polish picked
up black tile, toothpaste in the sink echoed the turquoise
burning under the skin of my eye sockets." And then
there are the glam restaurants Lee frequents, usually on
Yves arm, a who's who of where to eat and be seen. Morton's,
Nobu, Montrachet, Chanterelle in Manhattan; in Brooklyn,
Black Betty, Plan Eat Thai, Relish, Galapagos (in passing,
but). I thought, well, say I'm reading this in Manhattan,
Kansas, and I'm not up on Florent, the meat district diner?
Well. Okay. But when she outed my onetime (until the French
owners divorced) favorite and best kept secret, Le Jardin
Bistro, I felt betrayed. Can't go there anymore, I thought,
but I haven't been anyway, not since the insouciant husband
gave way to the more proper wife and the wine list became
cher beyond my budget.
What does any of this have to do with Holly Golightly or
Lee whatever-her-last-name-is whom I've left stranded with
a mob size debt, a drug habit and an internal life going
to hell? There is more heat to Libaire's book, but both
characters are in trouble. To Holly's big paragraph dialogue
style, Lee's speech is compact and sharp with just enough
there to let us hear her, and hear Yves too, and her cronies
at work and three AM party pals. Like Holly, Lee's not letting
anyone in, she's a girl alone in a tough town trying to
party herself into something she can recognize as a life.
Then along comes Kelly, the love interest, and here something
unfortunate happens. Kelly, the way Jardine Libarie draws
him: large-as in boned, and in -er than life-with his laconic
speech, and jaguar-like stealth, reminded me (forgive me
Jardine) of the actor Steven Segal. I couldn't shake it.
He even has a pony tail, a whispery past, reads the Book
of the Dead and has that quiet self-controlled cast that
lets everyone know he'll karate kick their leg off if need
be. Anyway, the tension mounts: Yves or Kelly, drugs or
sobriety? The cat is brought on board, thanks to Kelly,
and Lee begins to focus: "Outside my window, truckers
trucked, hookers fucked, cops cruised, kids smoked, elders
yelled, invalids slept, spouses fought, lovers kissed, while
I watched a pussycat playing with stars in a black room."
It's not Holly Golightly goes to AA, but art (upper case
A) that enters stage front and the winds begin to shift.
There is honesty to the shift; Libaire knows enough to leave
the edge in place while changing the gears. The writing
doesn't pound us over the head when we are treated to Lee's
incidental insights, initially while high on substance or
lack of sleep, or both, and later as she sobers up. Some
ring like golden bells, others grate like nail on blackboard:
"So many land mines in this new territory called adulthood.
Talent has a window. Freedom sometimes becomes a trap. We
may die before we finish our dreams...We can't spend innocence
without accounting...We partner not just for love but because
we become too weak to make it alone." Sometimes things
are better left unsaid.
The enigma of Holly Golightly is that we never know who
she really is. Like Lee, she has gambled away her chances
at an easy ride. For Holly, there's only a stray hope that
she'll find the place that feels like where she's supposed
to be. With Lee, there is something sturdier, but still
fragile. As long as Kelly doesn't come crashing in on a
chandelier to save her, but Jardine Libraire has too much
savvy for that. Lee may have to move out of Williamsburg
though, as prices soar. Très unfortunate, darling,
as Holly Golighlty might say; unfortunate for freer spirits
threatened with drowning amidst the shiny clutter of expensive
© 2004 J. Stefan-Cole