Fans of critic Wolcott, who’s written some of the funniest, most penetrating cultural reviews of the last 25 years, will be surprised by this, his first book, a novel that’s so milquetoast you have to wonder if it’s really by the same James Wolcott, scourge of shabby prose and shoddy thinking.
A weak sally in the war between the sexes, Wolcott’s breezy guide to modern romance in New York City has all the soul of a second-rate sitcom. Johnny Downs, a thirtysomething “actor slash bartender,” has just been dumped again, this time by his go-getting girlfriend Nicole, who commits the sin of sins: forgetting to feed Johnny’s cherished cat, Slinky, while Johnny was visiting family down in Maryland. The 17-year-old furball is about the only faithful companion in Johnny’s world, except for his long-distance confidante Darlene Ryder, a smart-talking southerner who’s determined to transform Johnny into husband material. Finding Johnny “malleable,” and “oblivious” (like most men), Darlene dictates her advice over the telephone, countering the caveman attitude of Johnny’s best friend, Tom Gleason, a fellow actor constantly on the prowl. Johnny goes through a quick list of potential mates: Claudia, bitch goddess actress, who doesn’t even make it through one date; Amanda, her wealthy friend, who benefits from Darlene’s counterintuitive guidebook; and Kris, a sexy young thing Darlene sends north, partly to spoil Johnny’s success with Amanda. When Johnny discovers Darlene’s duplicity, and her considerable secrets are revealed, he breaks from his cracked Svengali and courts a gamine photographer, Annette, nevertheless benefiting from Darlene’s sensitivity training. Meanwhile, Johnny’s career takes a turn for the better: he channels all his male angst and anger into a performance piece that catches the eye of the theater crowd and TV producers.
Strongest when Johnny is among his taunting brothers and concerned parents back in suburban Maryland, far from the parochial Manhattanites. And Wolcott is incapable of writing inept prose. But all the defining features of his best book, film, and television reviews are absent here: wit, skepticism, insight. Those who’ve suffered his scorn will be loaded for kill.