Magazine article The Spectator

The Inevitable Jerk

Magazine article The Spectator

The Inevitable Jerk

Article excerpt

WALTZING THE CAT by Pam Houston

Virago, f9.99, pp. 288

When city girls suffer a prolonged bout of self-loathing they starve themselves and sleep with unsuitable men; country girls are more likely to push themselves to their physical limits and then sleep with unsuitable men. In Pam Houston's second collection of short stories, Lucy O'Rourke is definitely a country girl at heart. A wildlife photographer, with a love of rivers and a fatal attraction to almost every wrong man in America, Lucy has a collection of road-trip heartbreak stories to rival Jack Kerouac. When an affair sours, she takes to her canoe and rides the biggest, most dangerous rapids she can find, or sails into the tailwind of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. This lady is a cross between the Marlboro Man's kid sister and Ally McBeal.

Outstanding in the collection is the title story, `Waltzing the Cat,' in which Houston explores the bizarre relationship Lucy has with her parents. Her alcoholic mother eats far too little and, terrified that Lucy will be overweight, imposes a strict diet on her, while overfeeding the family cat. Disappointed that his only child is a girl, Lucy's father can only communicate in sports statistics, reserving his unconditional love for the cat. As a child, Lucy learns to abide by the unwritten codes which keep the family's precarious facade intact; as an adult she never stops running long enough to face the realities of her childhood. Houston's detached prose normally sits better in the wide open spaces that provide a backdrop for most of her stories, but in this claustrophobic house where the unsaid is of the utmost importance, it lends a haunting, stomach-churning quality to what is essentially an ordinary tale. …

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