What we are dealing with here is a classic. Not in the Clive Barnes on late-night television exclaiming over the quality of the leather bindings sort of way. And not in the way of books you’ve always guiltily meant to read, or finally do wondering what’s the big deal. (Is “Death in Venice” really that swoony?)
“Who Sleeps With Katz” (no question mark) is a classic in the way of books that spread like a rumor, of books that you read and, years after they appear, find others who’ve read them too, thinking no one else has even heard of them. “Who Sleeps With Katz” can look forward to a paperback reissue in 20 years from the New York Review of Books and an accompanying rapturous introduction. Why wait?
Todd McEwen seems to have envisioned this novel as the meeting of “Ulysses” and Frank Sinatra singing “The September of My Years.” The protagonist is MacK, an NBC radio announcer, who, when the book opens, has just been told he has lung cancer. That sounds like one hell of an unpromising beginning — or, if we can make MacK a female yarn-shop owner in Virginia, at least the pitch for some Lifetime movie. But it’s not really a beginning but an ending, the first in an entire book of endings. “Who Sleeps with Katz” comprises MacK’s walk from uptown Manhattan (407 Riverside Drive, to be exact) to the Village to meet his best friend Isidor Katz on the day he has learned of his imminent demise.
“Who Sleeps With Katz” is dense with asides, flashbacks and ruminations on any subject (why fish restaurants are a metaphor for New York City), unexplained declarations meant simply to be taken for fact (Park Avenue as dead matter — the Upper East Side as wasteland), and observations so hilariously true you can’t worry about their political incorrectness (the perils facing people as they try to order in Chinese restaurants on Canal Street). It’s written in long paragraphs with no quotation marks, flips between first and third person, and sentences are constantly interrupted. Quite clearly, the novel models MacK’s walk down Broadway with Leopold Bloom’s perambulations through Dublin. But the voice, whether we are in MacK’s head or Izzy’s, is of middle-aged men who have tried to live in Manhattan as if it were the ’30s or the ’40s (MacK even wears a hat).
He and Izzy are drawn to bars that look like bars (dark wood and glass), restaurants where the waiters treat their customers with an edge of impatient contempt, to cigars, martinis, women with good legs. They hold in suspicion, if not loathing, all things that smack of the modern (which they equate with shoddiness, the loss of grace). When Izzy’s New England girlfriend Mary-Ann orders a pousse-cafe in Jack Dempsey’s, Izzy is thrown into an almost existential terror.
And yet “Who Sleeps With Katz” (the title suggestive of what we do when faced with the loss of our closest friend) scrupulously avoids sentimentality by its edge of crankiness, by its conviction that New York City is a mystery whose secrets are open to anyone who is open to it. MacK and Izzy’s elucidation of the character of various neighborhoods and streets, and the imperceptible yet quicksilver change that comes over the city as you pass from one to the other, is the antithesis of the false bonhomie you find in that tourist “classic,” E.B. White’s “Here Is New York.” The key to New York, in the view of both McEwen and his characters, is embracing its energy (what is often seen as its rudeness) rather than insulating yourself from it. Thus he writes of bars and corner delis and public buildings with some character in a nearly sacrosanct way, as refuges that are not disconnected from the world outside, each offering succor and expressing the grace the city can exude.
There have traditionally been two types of New York humor: dry and WASP (the original New Yorker) and Jewish and irritable (this may seem an odd exemplar, but for me Steven Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff on “Law & Order,” his face proclaiming, “Abandon all hope …”). For many years, the epitome of New York humor was Woody Allen. But as he has revealed himself to be a Jew who dreams of being a WASP, it’s refreshing that McEwen has reversed that formula. MacK is a WASP who, in his heart of hearts, wants to be a Jew. He has become something like a de facto member of a Jewish family in his Riverside Drive building. And he drives Izzy, who finds the idea of Jewish cuisine an oxymoron, crazy by periodically announcing his desire for a nice piece of flanken. But the tension is best expressed by the symbiotic and prickly friendship between MacK and Izzy, each embodying something the other longs for, each realizing that the only way to navigate the city is with a mixture of manners and an intolerance for each and every manifestation of bullshit. And each irritation and indignity is met with resigned outrage, the “whaddya expect” air of people who assume the worst.
“Who Sleeps With Katz” is not only one of the great New York novels, it’s also one of the few novels that can be reasonably called “Joycean.” Understandably, most of the writers who have built on Joyce (Roddy Doyle and Edna O’Brien among them) have been Irish. McEwen, a native Californian now living in Edinburgh (go figure), seems to adore the element of performance in Joyce, the demonstration of what he can do with words, of long strings of phrases put together to catch the particulars of a neighborhood, of even the mood of a certain hour of the day seen from a certain vantage point. McEwen has every faith that words can catch things as evanescent as smoke. And maybe that evanescence is why “Who Sleeps With Katz” has more of a sense of mortality than nearly any novel I’ve read in recent years. It’s not just the constant focus on loved people and places and things seen through the prism of a character who is going to die; it’s the realization, even without that knowledge, of the fleeting nature of perfect moments, imperfect relationships, a great martini or a good meal. By the end of “Who Sleeps With Katz” the sense of loss McEwen has packed into its pages is overwhelming. It’s as great and sad a love song as the city has ever inspired.
Our next pick: In this debut, a young Bangladeshi woman moves to London for a traditional Muslim marriage and finds unexpected pleasure in her new life.