A review of King of Cats by Blake Fraina

The book’s merit is in the presentation of a recognizable character, a popular cultural type—a seductive, reclusive, possibly bisexual musician—and the explanation for his character and contradictions and how these things relate to—are made possible by, and influence—the surrounding world.

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

King of Cats: A Life in Five Novellas
By Blake Fraina
iUniverse, Inc.
ISBN 0-595-30756-6, 236 pages, $16.95

We are creatures of thought and emotion, instincts and impulses, and the relation of each to each is precarious—unpredictable and unstable—and, consequently, what it means to be human is continuously being discovered—or invented. That we can become conscious of our own natures and make choices about who we are and what we want to be, do, and say is a great part of whatever freedom we have. Choice is itself an affirmation of consciousness and mastery, though the absence of choice is sometimes seen as a marker of nature, of inevitability, as a force greater than thought or society. I see lack of choice as a marker of an amoral animality, at best; and at worse, as barbarism, madness, pathology, perversity, poverty, and stupidity. The danger of cultural relativism—which allows foreign cultures, primitive cultures, minority cultures, and outlaw cultures to have equal value with whatever is considered the most evolved dominant domestic culture, a cultural relativism that has become increasingly apparent in the west, in Europe and the United States of America, in the last forty years—is that unquestioned or questionable values and habits sustained in less dominant or less evolved cultures will be introduced into the dominant culture and will take on a new force and influence. There are at least two “cultures” present in Blake Fraina’s book King of Cats: A Life in Five Novellas, one is rock culture and the other is homosexual culture and both offer the appearance of liberation and self-indulgence, though both are, as presented in the book, very destructive. That is worth considering for philosophical and social reasons; and it is necessary to consider those cultures as part of the content and value of the novel, King of Cats, which is focused on a young man of beauty and musical talent, qualities matched by his intelligence and torment.

King of Cats is a work of fiction told in five parts—or novellas, as the author calls them, and each part covers a different time period, periods presented out of chronological order: the years 2002, 2001, 1995, 2003, and 1987; and, with respect to the characters’ actions and comments and the author’s narrative, the reader uses intelligence and imagination to draw connections among the novellas: “King of the Cats” (Fall 2002), “The Bargain” (Spring 2001), “Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter” (Winter/Early 1995), “My Father’s House” (Summer 2003), and “Hidden History” (1987). We are first introduced to a strangely open and somewhat charming young man, Elliott, and through him we meet the central character, Jim; and after, we learn of Jim’s relationship to his bandmates and family. The presentation of Jim’s story, moving from recent times to the past, means that certain questions about the lead characters’ histories and reasons are not immediately answered: curiosity is created and encouraged, but when the answers to those questions come they are not always original or impressive. In Jim, we see someone who is often perceived as cold, manipulative, and sometimes out of control, and then we see how he used to be—a somewhat naïve and sensitive boy who likes music, and was brutalized, in different ways, by male family members, the first men he knew. It’s fascinating that the healthiest relationships in the book occur between Jim and women—Lisa, a music executive, and Amy, the wife of the leader of Jim’s first band. Jim develops a friendship with both that has the possibility of becoming sexual. The friendships involve the recognition and respect for the feelings and complex life of each; and that is much more than we actually see when looking at the way the male lovers in the novel interact. Relationships among the men are marked most by lust, compulsive lust, usually attended by alcohol and drugs, brutality, deception, and manipulation. The author may or may not think Jim’s problem is his hesitance about making his sexuality public, but the details of the book suggest that Jim’s sexuality is more nuanced than political ideology. Jim cannot be a poster boy for male love, as his relationships with men are nothing to celebrate. I think that this is a book that can be read with or against the social trends—in habits and understanding—of our time.

In the first part, “King of the Cats” (Fall 2002), a man named Sam, short for Samson, a film sound engineer and editor and would-be film director, becomes enamored of a Balthus portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the more appealing aspects of the novel is the way the work references recognizable New York locations. Sam, a constant masturbator who gets nosebleeds when he masturbates, is a deeply alienated man, and he meets Elliott, who also seems as taken with the same Balthus portrait of a man attended by a large cat, King of the Cats. Sam and Elliott immediately have a sexual encounter that seems unusually rough—Sam feels guilty about it, though we will learn that such roughness is part of Elliott’s ongoing erotic fantasy life. Sam tracks Elliott down through a former co-worker of Elliott, a woman who even agrees to meet with Sam to discuss Elliott, though Sam is a man she does not know, a courtesy and trust some might find hard to believe. Sam and Elliott have other sexual encounters—sordid, strange, and mostly unpleasant—and Elliott disappears but leaves clues for Sam. Sam follows these clues—principally, posters for an upcoming performance of Jim’s band that use the image from the painting King of the Cats—and then Elliott introduces Sam to Jim (and I don’t think we see or hear about Sam for the rest of the book); and so the first part of the book ends.

“The Bargain” (Spring 2001), the second part, begins with Jim, or Jimmy as he is sometimes called, meeting with Lisa, a music executive with an independent record label that is signing Jimmy’s band, which has been financed largely by the band’s singer, a rich boy named Adam. Jim and Adam have a contentious working relationship—and Adam is often drunk and insulting. Jim and Adam disagree about whether to change the band’s name from The Moggies to The Blogs or something else (moggies are a British name for cats, and Jim had a favorite cat when he was a boy and so likes the name). “The Bargain” is written in a style that seems more logical—more linear and more sane—than the first chapter, and after Jim’s initial rudeness with Lisa over the problem of the band’s name, their slowly evolving relationship—her attraction to him, her critical realism about the limits of a relationship with him, and his curiosity about her—is easily engaging. Jimmy is charming with Lisa the second and third time they meet—attentive, seemingly honest, unexpectedly decent; and even she thinks how far from his image—the bad boy of music—he seems. (“He wanted to go back to her flat in Park Slope. He quite liked her. Kissing was even nice. Incredibly so,” the author tells us on page 61, before adding “But women just didn’t turn him on. They were soft and fleshy in all the places he felt people should be firm and taut. And their smell. Well, he couldn’t tolerate that at all.”)

It is in this chapter, “The Bargain,” that we learn about the origin of Jim’s odd relationship with Elliott, who claimed to be hungry and broke and offered to perform fellatio on Jim for money: Jim was open to the sex, and he felt genuine sympathy for the boy and offered the boy a place to stay, and they began to live together, though neither is romantic about or particularly loyal to their relationship of attraction and convenience. Elliott frequently goes out trysting with other men, disappearing for days at a time; he has a dream of degradation he constantly pursues: it’s not clear why, though it may be in response to a socially if not emotionally safe and secure middle-class upbringing. Jim’s sexual relationship with Elliott is assumed by most of Jim’s bandmates but it is Adam who once walked in and saw Elliott and Jim involved in a sexual act. (After leaving a date with Lisa to return to the place he shares with Elliott, again on page 61, Jim remembers her: “He thought of the girl as he idly stroked Elliott’s hair. He liked her. She was tougher than she seemed at first but kind, he found. Warm. Being with her was soothing, comforting. Feelings he had so little experience of in his life. Apropos of nothing, he thought, I need to find my own place.”) It is only when Lisa, with her eyes open, decides to offer Jim a place to stay and goes over to the small shabby apartment he shares with Elliott that we see any significant tenderness or care between Jim and Elliott (there was an echo of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, when Ella and David bump into Giovanni in a bookstore, in that): and Jim still moves out. By the end of this chapter, King of Cats has become an involving—though lurid—read.

Adam’s belligerent, contemptuous attitude toward Jim, while intense, was something I did not question: often co-workers, especially those involved in a creative project, have very volatile relationships. It’s not ideal, it’s regrettable, but it happens. So much is at stake: self-worth, public acclaim, fame and money, not to mention artistic fulfillment. However the third part of the book, “Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter” (Winter/Early 1995), with a title that’s a reference to an English navy symbol of punishment, shows the beginning of the relationship between Adam and Jim and indicates that when Adam and Jim first met, after Adam saw Jim play guitar in a small club, Adam was surprised to find himself attracted to Jim. Adam immediately suggested that Jim join his band, made up of wealthy young men; and following a tour of Adam’s apartment and imbibing of various intoxicants, Adam and Jim have what seems to be really satisfying sex. It is Adam who finds the small apartment in one of his father’s buildings for Jim to live in rent-free, the place Jim will later share with Elliott. The chapter ends with Jim again having sex with Adam and feeling like a whore; and it seems that the distance between them, the distance that is prevalent in the preceding chapter (“The Bargain”), is filled with Jim’s resentment of their disproportionate financial worth and Adam’s frustrated sexual desire.

It is a shock to read of Jim’s plans to move in with Adam, after having seduced Adam on their tour bus in “My Father’s House” (Summer 2003): it is a melodramatic development; and it seems out of character for both of them, though I have known people who supposed that hostility could be rooted in erotic attraction or that hostility could become erotic attraction. (I always found that rather perverse, especially when people I really despised claimed to be attracted to me and thought I was equally disposed to them, the evidence being the friction in our exchanges: my sole desire regarding them was that they disappear from the earth.) Jim rationalizes that it’s more discreet to have sex with Adam on the tour bus rather than with an audience member or other stranger while on tour, celibacy not being an acceptable choice to him. Once he moves in with Adam, Jim is apprehensive about the relationship—as well he might be, not only regarding the band-based complications but also having beaten Adam up while moving out of the apartment Jim shared with Elliott after Adam admitted having sex with Elliott.

One of the interesting threads in the story, and in the relationship of Adam and Jim as lovers, is how the band members sometimes see Jim, an unusually attractive man, as being like a girl, especially when Adam and Jim are physically close. I’m reminded that the U2 lead singer Bono once said that he knew how girls felt because people treated him, as the lead singer, like a girl—in a way that was both pandering and condescending. Such narrow gender configurations—how women are valued, valued less than men; and how men who are like women for whatever reason are discounted despite their other attributes or gifts—is something that is expressed but not analyzed in this book. Yet, some of the most compelling passages—a nearly moving candor—are achieved when Adam and band member Steve talk about Adam’s relationship to Jim: Adam and Jim’s initial meeting and sex and then Jim’s resistance and how they’ve come together again.

Both Adam and Jim “betray” each other with Elliott, if betrayal can be an operative term among such men. Isn’t part of what makes the directness and promiscuity possible between homosexual men the fact that they are men, aggressive and willful and apparently sex-driven? (I do not know if most men are sex-driven, or if society only approves of male want when it’s attached to sex or money or war; and so sex becomes one of the strongest drives. It is also possible that men are less civilized than women—less shaped by culture, by manners and thought and aesthetics—and so are more in touch with their animal drives. It’s hard not to become entangled in speculation and prejudice when discussing such matters. It may be better to admit that so much of our ideas about gender and sexual identity—and even human identity—are nothing more than speculations, accepted or unaccepted: there is evidence for various theories, and what, other than Freud’s concept of polymorphous perversity, can begin to account for it all?) To have Adam and Jim try to achieve a stable relationship is to go against their history with each other; and to go against the cultures—rock; homosexual—that touch their lives.

After Adam’s father sells the building in which Elliott still lives, where Jim used to live, Elliott gets an eviction notice, and moves in with Adam and Jim, confirmation for Jim that whenever he tries to achieve something approximating normality things only become more bizarre. Elliott has seemed frivolous and compulsive, and his presence in the apartment works as both balm and acid. The sexual desires and resentments and stupidity among the three men ultimately lead to Elliott’s suicide attempt.

The last chapter gives the reader insight into Jim and it may be the most interesting, most useful, and most disturbing: “Hidden History” (1987) begins with eight-year old Jim’s introduction to sex via a male cousin who is five years older. The relationship continues for several years; and the scenes that unfold have the texture of memory—they suggest feelings and facts that defy ideology. Jim’s cousin sees himself as heterosexual, yet pursues erotic relations with Jim and it is clear that he has become infatuated with Jim as Jim has gotten older (thirteen years-old) and more handsome. At one point, when the older cousin, Eamonn, asks Jim to strip, Jim reminds him that he’s a boy underneath his clothes. The relationship of gender and sexuality—what a male is expected to find attractive and erotically satisfying—is given to us in a nearly raw form. Eamonn is acting against his self-concept, by impulse, and increasingly by desire; and Jim, who has had no particular sexual impulse, is beginning—by forced habit—to grow into sexual impulse. It must be stated baldly: Jim is being sexually molested into homosexuality by his cousin.

How often does that kind of thing happen? It seems to me that if homosexuality often occurs as a result of childhood molestation, then that is something we should know about and discuss, rather than pretending homosexuality is simply a natural development or an alternative lifestyle. When I was younger I read writers such as Jeffrey Weeks and Dennis Altman who speculated about the history of sexuality, especially among men (recently, Louis Crompton produced a respectable history book in that tradition, Homosexuality and Civilization). I thought years ago that bisexuality was fundamental, and that homosexuality was a choice that could be made—after a feminist critique of gender, with an experimental grasp of desire, and out of social empathy, and for radical subversion, but, of course, homosexuality is as disappointing and limited as most social relationships. Homosexuality, which did not exist before the second half of the nineteenth century as an exclusive sexual or social category, remains an interesting phenomenon, partly because of the controversy it inspires and how it forces us to consider individual rights and civil liberties. However, other than this, and being currently bored with most of the easily available studies on the subject, I have a sense that academic books on homosexuality do not matter, that we live in a society determined to place human experience in categories and these categories are lies, in both concept and effect: human experience is too ambiguous and diverse. That the author, Blake Fraina, has characters in the first and last chapter refer to official commentaries on homosexuality suggests to me that Fraina might suspect as much, but that, more likely, he is in thrall to such categories and explanations. That one of the readers of these commentaries is the character Jim suggests to me that Jim has an inclination to understand his own experience and the possibility of seeking and making informed choices—and he may be limited by his reading material or the realities he finds himself in.

In King of Cats, a novel in five parts, Jim’s coerced sexual experience can be called incest and rape. That violation is also attended by the fact that Jim’s parents are oblivious to what the boys, Eamonn and Jim, might be doing together, and that Jim’s father beats Jim for all sorts of reasons, small and large—and other family members, including older relatives, know about that parental abuse and do not intervene. Jim’s father gets rid of Jim’s cat, one of the few things Jim loved without pain. By the time Jim meets the musician Derek, husband of Amy, and joins Derek’s band, Jim’s first band, Jim is shy and expects to be hurt by others and hardly knows his own attraction or worth. Jim has sex with one of the local women and the scene is vivid—again full of the memory of touch, taste, and smell, but though Jim is a giving lover, that is not a genuinely intimate relationship; whereas, his friendship with Amy is. The impersonality of the sex with Cassie, Jim’s first woman lover, reminds him of sex with Eamonn. The author’s description of Jim’s response to his first female lover’s body is sometimes misogynist and I think that such misogyny can be short-hand (sophomoric short-hand) to suggest homosexuality, but misogyny and homosexuality are not the same: to suggest they are is to suggest that the opposite of deep desire is repulsion, a kind of crude rhetoric of desire. Sometimes, and most often, the opposite of desire is simply indifference—not cold or cruel indifference but benign indifference. What’s interesting is that the openness to sex that Jim has—that the author also describes—and the pleasure Jim finds in sex with a woman, Cassie, suggests the ambiguity of sexual impulse and satisfaction. (“Of all the men she’d ever been with, he was by far the best,” the author tells us on page 207; and, on page 210, when Cassie performs fellatio on Jim, “it was the best thing he’d ever felt.”) One can argue that this is a text that allows readings the author himself might not prefer, readings that suggest a greater truth—a truth beyond the text, a truth beyond our current moment in history.

It is in the last chapter that Jim is bought, by Cassie, new clothes for a more seductive look and he feels “almost good looking” (217). He is also given, by Derek and Amy, a drug to calm his nervousness before a performance, the beginning of a bad habit he will develop then lose. The band will decide to give up music and months will go by before Jim is told that, or told that Derek and Amy are having a baby. Derek and Amy have helped and hurt Jim—and when Jim buys one of Derek’s guitars, it’s a way to keep playing the music that is a great, longtime resource for him and to remember his history with them. In this exploration of hidden history it is possible to see a complexity beneath the simplifications of our currently accepted understandings. “Hidden History” is a chapter that explains and also throws doubt on much that has come before. I find myself wondering what Jim would have been had his cousin not molested him. Isn’t it possible to see a repressed heterosexuality in his response to Lisa and Amy? (Is that why the author insists on introducing misogyny?) Isn’t it possible to consider that Jim’s sexuality could have gone in any direction; and that the direction it seems to have finally chosen was conditioned by his very particular—familial and social—experiences?

Obviously, this book King of Cats is an interesting and stimulating read; and not always for reasons that have anything to do with art or entertainment. While the book has aesthetic merit, it is not, for me, a significant work of art, nor can I say that it gave me much pleasure. The stories told out of linear order, and the explicit sex, and the emotional extremity, may be modern but they are not new; and the book’s more mundane aspects—scenes featuring Jim’s family and bands and interaction with women friends—sometimes have a more believable power. The book also had certain flaws of presentation, such as typos: painter Giorgio De Chirico’s name is spelled incorrectly (2); the word “of” is left out of the phrase “against one [of] his legs” (3); there’s the awkwardness of “say whatever…to whomever’s path they cross” (6); “built-in drama” is left unhyphenated and guarantee is not conventionally spelled (7); film director Antonioni’s name is also misspelled (14); “Their mine” appears instead of “They’re mine” (40); a quotation mark is in the wrong place (50); “effect” is inappropriately used for “affect” (104); and there’s the phrase “in the smile [her] gave her,” in which the pronoun should be “he” (209), and so on. The book’s merit is in the presentation of a recognizable character, a popular cultural type—a seductive, reclusive, possibly bisexual musician—and the explanation for his character and contradictions and how these things relate to—are made possible by, and influence—the surrounding world. Culture is a shared tradition or practice constituted by principles, forms, and perceptions, and it is most formidable, most full of meaning, when it provokes thought and clarifies values; and King of Cats would have been a stronger book if the ideals to be won or lost in living, in the choices people make, had been given greater logic and weight: what appear to be the healthiest, most intelligent, and most sensitive ideals? However, in its evocation of misery and ecstasy, the book King of Cats suggests the inescapable mystery of the human condition.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, is a New York writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, IdentityTheory.com, PopMatters.com, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett wrote the film essay “Hell is Other People; or, Nostalgia for a World Culture in Wolfhound Centuries: Proteus by John Greyson and Jack Lewis,” focusing on relationships between men, a piece that appeared on the pages of Offscreen, the online film magazine. And he wrote about bisexuality for the magazine Anything That Moves. Daniel Garrett’s principal concerns are literature, film, philosophy, and music, for their reflection of the complexities of human existence, and he admires the work of Chekhov, Henry James, Rainer Rilke, Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Julie Dash, Eric Rohmer, Bergman, Ben Harper, and Cassandra Wilson, among others.