Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Paint it Black: an unhappy review

I read Paint it Black with the increasing dread that can only come from a book you have high hopes for, staying with the narrative as it went from bad to worse, then wondering how to talk about it here.

Black is structurally similar to Oleander (its first huge problem). Where Oleander set daughter Astrid against murderous mother Ingrid, with dead lover Barry Kolker the missing male, Black gives us Josie Tyrell, at war with her dead lover’s mother, Meredith. The two women tussle over their memories of Michael Loewy, a talented, spoiled, moody young man whose indecision leads him to suicide. Ingrid is an accomplished poet; Meredith, a pianist. Astrid, though artistically talented, struggles to find herself outside her mother’s shadow. Josie, uneducated, struggles in general after Michael’s death whilst paying the (amazingly few) bills by doing art modeling and acting. Much is made of her delicate beauty, which she is indifferent to.

Los Angeles has a major role as well, as it did in Oleander. The novel is set in Los Feliz, the edges of Hollywood, places where decay snugs uneasily up against glamour.

Black starts realistically enough with Josie being informed of Michael’s suicide. From there we are taken on a gruesome visit to the coroner’s office, interlaced with memories of Josie’s and Michael’s idyllic love affair. Josie’s pain would be unbearable were it not for the extensive cursing Fitch employs to give us a sense of character. The swearing, coupled with Josie’s penchant for “ciggies” and “voddy”, specifically, “Smirny”, quickly loses its punch, becoming annoying. Josie is what was once referred to as a scrapper. Today she is merely Bakersfield White Trash, albeit with a good heart beneath her skinny chest.

Equally bothersome is Fitch’s use of metaphor. On one hand, her ability to conjure a noirish Los Angeles and the equally dark feelings of her characters is admirable:

“She remembered everything, everything...The way the light streaked the wide planks of the floor and filled the windows with trees....the long silvery eucalyptus trees that blew across the window like a girl’s hair.” (55)

But the metaphors are constant, clogging the action, until they, too, become irritants, slowing the book’s momentum. Josie can’t cross the room without frayed nerves or a tight throat or an empty chest.

Josie’s bizarre relationship with Meredith never really becomes clear. One would think Josie would want to avoid the woman who attempted strangling her at Michael’s funeral. But Josie cannot resist Meredith’s pull any more than Michael could. By page 285 the women have circled round each other like pit bulls preparing to kill one another. Meredith sets a detective on Josie’s tail; Josie, certain this a hired hit, ducks into a bar, telephoning friends frantically for help. Nobody home... except Meredith. Huh? From there the plot loses all probability. Josie is whisked to Meredith’s sumptuous home, where she sleeps in a room stuffed with the possessions Meredith stole from the cottage she shared with Michael. Meredith buys her clothing, feeds her, plans to run off on an extended, endless European tour. Josie will come along.

Except Josie won’t. I’m about to give plot away here, so quit reading if you don’t want to know what happens.

Josie will be “rescued” by the maid. It’s always the domestic help who have to clean up the shit, after all, and loyal Sofia is no exception. After fishing a drunken Josie from Meredith’s freezing swimming pool, the incensed maid announces “You fool. You are confuse.” (331) Josie is shoved into Sofia’s car and driven back home, where she decides to make a pilgrimage to the Twentynine Palms motel where Michael took his life.

I’m editing hugely—the book is 387 pages—leaving out Josie’s friends, the LA punk scene, her moviemaking adventures, scenes of family life and her year with Michael. Cut to her drive inland, in an unreliable car that in any other reality would have died roadside on Interstate Five. She finds the fateful motel, run by a seedy family of Germans with a shy daughter who offers the closing scenes. Only by then I was worn; the book is one-hundred fifty too many pages, and although I could not predict the ending, when it finally arrived, I was aggravated instead of pleased.

Second books are always difficult, particularly when they follow firsts that were blockbusters. Fitch is talented, and I am not ready to give up on her. I’d love to see her move on—to fresh characters and a believable plot. I still think she can do it.

Janet Fitch: Paint it Black. New York: Little, Brown, and Company. 2006

Authors, Books, Janet Fitch, Review


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