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by Jardine Libaire
A non-review by J. Stefan-Cole

I'm 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 city stuff.

© 2004 J. Stefan-Cole

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