Film critic turned screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, whose credits include Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Affliction, once remarked that he makes the sort of movies that he wouldn't have liked as a critic. That gulf between artist and critic has rarely seemed more apparent than with The Catsitters, the dreadful first novel by James Wolcott, a former New Yorker culture writer and current Vanity Fair columnist. While Wolcott is considered by many to be America's most feared critic, his reputation for droll savagery may be overblown. Still, had a copy of The Catsitters landed on his desk, the bloodless comedy of manners would have begged for swift evisceration. Over the years, Wolcott has written incisively on topics ranging from punk rock to television to "Paulette" film reviewers, but fiction writing utilizes a different set of mental muscles, and his have severely atrophied. With apologies due to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, Catsitters shrewdly meshes their sensibilities, dissecting contemporary social mores by way of comically elaborate romantic gamesmanship. But while Wolcott's considerable powers of observation make quick work of the New York theater scene, he has greater trouble putting flesh on bone, as he divides the sexes into oblivious dolts and prissy socialites with minds like steel traps. As the book opens, Wolcott's ineffectual hero, a sporadically employed actor and bartender named Johnny Downs, returns home to discover that his girlfriend has been seeing another man. Left to terminal bachelorhood with his faithful cat Slinky, Downs seeks romantic advice from his friend Darlene, a no-nonsense Southern belle who orders a complete overhaul of his unkempt lifestyle. Orchestrating his every move via telephone from Georgia, Darlene redecorates Downs' home, plans his parties, and scripts his dates down to the tiniest detail, asserting special insight into the female psyche. Their one-sided conversations comprise the lion's share of The Catsitters, as Darlene dictates orders on everything from shower curtains to floor tiles to lovemaking technique. What are her ulterior motives, if any? The shoe finally drops after a small eternity, but with a shockingly feeble thump that lops a couple of dimensions off of the only remotely intriguing character in the book. It's hard to decide which of Wolcott's creations is most insulting. Is it Johnny, an empty shell with no will of his own, or the misogynist parade of high-maintenance scolds that are so wrapped up in petty minutiae that they consider the purchase of a store-bought cupcake tantamount to felony? Unless he actually intended The Catsitters to be a stealth satire on urban anomie, Wolcott shouldn't quit his day job.
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