As I sat down to write this post, it struck me that I have been reviewing stories set in different cities each time (New York City and London being understandable exceptions). So here I move to Philadelphia, a city where men offer women money to watch them put Swiss cheese on their penises and drunks voluntarily vomit on 11-year old girls. Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajama’s is like a love letter to Philly. And kindly, Philly even offers a reply of its own. “Good morning,” the city says. “Fuck you.”
From 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve Eve to 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve, the story follows three characters, as they in turn follow their dreams. Madeleine Altimari is a precocious, chain-smoking 9-year old who swears like a sailor. She is still mourning the loss of her mother, her father stays in his room listening to music and her apartment is so infested with cockroaches she goes from room to room announcing herself just so they can scatter. But she also dreams of singing jazz songs onstage and practices relentlessly to be ready when it happens.On Christmas Eve, she finds herself expelled from school and resolves to sing at the famed jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas. But will she get to perform?
Madeleine’s teacher, newly-divorced Sarina Greene, accepts an invitation for a party she doesn’t really want to attend, but she’s hoping to catch a glimpse of Ben, her high-school crush. Their one night together at Senior Prom was an utter disaster. It’s been years since the two have spoken and tonight they hesitantly side-step around each other, hoping to rekindle their romance. But will they be brave enough to ask for a second chance?
As for The Cat’s Pajama’s, it used to be the finest nightclub in the city. Three owners later, it is struggling to stay open. The owner, Jack Lorca, has been dumped by his girlfriend, has a junkie 14-year old son who wants to perform on stage and needs to pay the city $30,000 by tomorrow or be shut down. His only option is to sell a rare guitar, passed down in his family for generations. But is he willing to part with it?
Now, you already know where this book is headed — if you haven’t figured that out yet, take another look at the title — and that sense of predestination isn’t the only thing about this book that reminded me of a well-written sitcom. Bertino’s chapters progress like chain-smoked cigarettes; the next is lit off the last. The third-person, limited point of view whizzes so nimbly from child to dog, junkie to teacher, guitarist to principal, that several different consciences are inhabited in the space of a few pages. Most characters are dressed with an eccentricity or two, thrust onto stage to speak a few quips and herded off to wait until they’re called again.
2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is a page-turner, but a deceptive one. It’s a novel that makes me question the relationship between value and speed. Does a slow-going book contain more literary heft? Does fast mean easy? No. As I settled into the novel, I felt like I’d wandered into a modern-day Disney movie where even teacups have hearts. The verbs are relentlessly active—“eggs cuss and snap on the stove,” a caramel apple is “karate-chopped” off its stick—and the imagery is pulsey, peppery, perky. The aforementioned citation that The Cat’s Pajamas owner, Lorca, receives changes color—from “emergency cones” to “prison jumpsuits,” a tiny nod toward the increasing gravity of the situation. This language is alive and staggeringly original, but my heart was won with the plainer observations, so sneakily simple-sounding, like this one: “Madeline has no friends because she’s a jerk.” Followed by this one, a few beats later: “Even jerks have mothers who die.”
The ending left me a little empty – and a lot confused. I’m very satisfied with the way everything worked out for the characters, but the final scene was so out-of-nowhere and had a bit of a whimsical, magical element that I normally would love, but with the rest of the novel firmly rooted in reality, it completely threw me off-balance and took me out of the story. I know what it was supposed to represent but I don’t think it was needed and I felt it unnecessarily altered the tone of the story. If it hadn’t been for those few pages, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas would have been a perfectly delicious novel.
Chock-full of metaphor-y goodness, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas beautifully weaves together three storylines gravitating around a past-its-prime jazz club. The novel’s Old World feel perfectly suited its setting. The secondary characters were just as intriguing as the key figures and the foul-mouthed 9-year old at the center of it all quickly became a favorite of mine. With it’s catchy title and gripping characters, I can easily see this novel gaining a following, maybe not in the mainstream media, but underground. This is a special novel I’d recommend to fans of Philly or anyone who likes a solid story, but without all the hype and fanfare.