Book Review: Schadenfreude For Actors & Writers

review

Note: as of April 2012, a shorter version of this review will be published in the “Summer Reading Guide” article in the May 2012 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

P.S. Your Cat is Dead, written by James Kirkwood, Jr. Published 1972 by Stein and Day. 224 pages. ISBN # 0-8128-1511-4. Buy at Amazon.com.

I have an e-friend who turned me on to P.S. Your Cat is Dead. She wrote, “I highly recommend this book to all my friends. It’s sick and twisted,” and I knew then it was something I wanted to read. However, when I found out there was a play version (also written by Kirkwood, it’s copyright 1979 with the rights owned by Samuel French), that was the version I read first.

And fell in love with the play. A comedy where the first line is “Holy shit”, that has one of your main characters butt-naked (literally) for a good half of the play, and that ends with the two male leads ending up in bed together (not quite as literally, but with the implication that it is possible) was right up my twisted little alley.

The basic plot is about Jimmy Zoole, an actor in New York City at a turning point in his life. At 38, he hasn’t quite ‘made it’, and is starting to realize he may never make it. His relationship with his girlfriend Kate is on the decline through both of their faults, but partly because he plays everything very safe — and Kate is tired of the struggle of getting him to take the chances an actor (and person) needs to do occasionally in order to grow. His loft has been robbed twice in a row, one of which resulted in the theft of his one and only copy of the novel he was writing in an attempt to see if he was capable of doing something other than acting. And finally, his cat, Bobby Seale, is at the vet, ill. (And, of course, is actually dead before we even hear about him.)

He comes home on New Year’s Eve, having been fired from his latest acting job, to have his girlfriend finally break up with him, and catches a robber, Vito (who we find out in the story is also a hustler — hence the ending), in his house — and decides to take care of the burglar himself.

“You better find out what you want in life, because that’s what you’re going to get!” — Vito

It wasn’t until just recently that I finally decided to give the book version a read. (There’s also a movie version, starring of all people Steve Guttenberg as Jimmy, which I have seen. It’s been a long enough time since seeing it that I can’t remember much outside of that it wasn’t as bad as I had feared, and that it had transferred the setting from New York to LA — and as a result, has Vito, an Italian, turned into a Latino named Eddie.)

I’ve often gone on about how I don’t like to compare versions, whether it’s book to movie or reboot to old version. Isaac Asimov used a good example in the book How to Enjoy Writing: A Book of Aid and Comfort of comparing the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci to a stained glass version by another artist. They are two different mediums, each with their own pros and cons, and it does a disservice to both versions to compare.

And I really tried to not compare the book to the play I know, love, and hope to produce (and maybe even direct) one day. But I couldn’t help myself. The play, because of it being a play, is much shorter and much tighter in story. The novel starts off slow, and is much slower paced — which threw me. In the novel, the events happen over a few days, while in the play it’s all in one night. I preferred the play, as it gave it that ‘you had a REALLY bad day’ kind of feel to it, and my sympathy for Jimmy stemmed a lot from that. The main climax of the play is also in a different place in the book, and is not the main climax there — Kirkwood adds another event that I vaguely remember is also in the movie.

“I was victim, not of burglary, but of kidnapping.” — Jimmy Zoole

But the novel, being a novel, has the chance to go into some great character development for both Jimmy and Vito. I’m able to fall in love with both characters much more in the novel, and my sympathy for Jimmy comes from a different place as a result. In fact, if I were ever given the chance to direct the play version, I’d make my Jimmy and Vito read the book as part of their character research.

Kirkwood also has the chance to have some great lines in the novel that wouldn’t do well spoken. When talking about the theft of the novel, “I was victim, not of burglary, but of kidnapping,” Jimmy in the book says. “It would be hard, harder to try to re-create what I’d written than creating it in the first place.” Having had to re-write a book almost from scratch myself, I could easily relate.

The relationship between Jimmy and Vito also has a chance to grow a bit more in the novel and feel less contrived. Jimmy’s realization that Vito has the same eyes as Kate early on lends credence to the idea of these two potentially ending up as lovers. And Kirkwood also has the chance to have Jimmy make comparisons between Vito and Bobby Seale, especially the idea that Jimmy didn’t adopt the cat — the cat adopted him. Late in the book, when Jimmy says to Vito, “I liked my cat, I loved that cat, but I don’t particularly like cats in general,” it’s is a flat-out metaphor for how Jimmy thinks about sexual relations with men in general and Vito specifically.

“May your orgasms turn to stone!” — Jimmy Zoole

The theme of not knowing what to do with your life is much more prevalent through the book than the play. “How much of what we are or become depends upon talent, luck, appearance, type, environment, fate, timing, inheritance, intelligence — native or acquired? — or is it a lot of it just plain push-and-shove?” Jimmy asks himself about midway through the book. And Jimmy’s not the only one having this insight. Vito, in telling Jimmy about his life, explains that his dead lover tried to impart to him the advice that you’ve got to be more than ‘the life of the party’, as that will only last you for so long. And near the end of the book, Vito quotes his lover again, “You better find out what you want in life, because that’s what you’re going to get!

The novel also has a different ending than the play, and while they’re both a bit contrived, I like the play version more — it makes more story sense to me, and didn’t have me saying, “Really? REALLY?” like the novel version did, but I’m not sure how much of that response was because I had the other ending in my head.

Both versions are quick reads, and some of the best lines are in both, including the best insult ever: “May your orgasms turn to stone!” And both versions made me relate as both a writer and as someone who’s had the occasional venture into theatre. The story is engaging, the characters are believable and relatable, and it goes to show that it’s okay, maybe even healthy, to question your place in this world, and that when bad things happen, you just have to keep plugging away. After all, as Jimmy’s friend Pete says, “Life is nothing but a bunch of revue sketches. The birth sketch, the first-day-at-school sketch, the discovering-what-your-dong-is-for sketch, the marriage one, and so on. Some are bombs, some are so-so, a few are perfect, but when they’re played out – forget them. On to the next. And remember, like revue sketches, the bad ones always end.”