King of Cats: A Life in Five Novellas by Blake Fraina – review

Rating: 8.5/10 ★★★★★★★★½☆ Title: King of Cats: A Life in Five Novellas
Author: Blake Fraina
Genre: Gay contemporary literature
URL: iUniverse
Price: Print: US$16.95 / Adobe e-book: $6.00
Warnings: Explicit m/m sex, non-con, drug use
Summary (from iUniverse): What makes a person fascinating? Is it what they hide or what they reveal? Is it who they are or who they appear to be? A struggling filmmaker believes he recognizes the face of a man in an old painting and becomes obsessed with finding him. On the cusp of his band’s success, a closeted guitarist walks out on his longtime male lover to live with a woman he hardly knows. After spending one fateful night in bed together, two youthful musicians enter into a bitter and emotionally devastating power struggle for control over their band and one another. And eight years later, tragedy forces both men to confront the inescapable and bitter legacy of their fathers’ influence. Peopled with vivid characters and told in sharp dialogue, the five stories that comprise King of Cats tell the provocative, sometimes heartbreaking story of luminous, enigmatic rock star Jimmy ‘Strange’ Lyons. Weaving back and forth through time, from a tenement in Alphabet City to a luxury co-op overlooking Central Park to a semi-detached in North London, Jimmy’s life unfolds like a mystery, gradually revealing his secrets and exposing the vast gulf that often lies between what appears to be and what is.

My Review: King of Cats: A Life in Five Novellas is a tough novel to review without giving away all the secrets that make it such a fascinating, challenging and engrossing trip through the world of rock ‘n’ roll, a trip most of us can only dream about. What author Blake Fraina manages to do in 236 pages is to create a vivid world, to conjure up an almost fairytale mythology of a band on the rise. And then she does what any good writer would do: she shatters all of our fantasies, all our preconceptions about the rock and roll superstar we’ve just become smitten with, the impossibly beautiful star who, even though he’s a bit of a bad boy, manages to make us weak in the knees. The author strips away all the intoxicating glamour and the pretty facades. Sometimes she does it gently. Sometime she just rips the band-aid off without any warning at all. But the tool that Fraina uses to do this is real life. She picks at her characters and shows you the real people behind the “stars.” And then she even makes you question how real the “real” person is. As the summary states: What makes a person fascinating? Is it what they hide or what they reveal? Is it who they are or who they appear to be? It’s a question that Fraina asks and then gives hints about, but she never quite answers it, waiting for the reader, ultimately, to make up their minds about the characters she has created.

Now, I have to say, this novel is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It can, at times, be a tough read. Let’s just say that if you are looking for a typical romance — boy-meets-boy, boy-gets-boy, boy-and-boy-move-to-California-to-get-married — you will be sorely disappointed. If your tastes run more to the authentic version of life, perhaps something along the lines of fucked-up-boy-meets-fucked-up-boy, boy-gets-boy, boy-doesn’t-want-boy-but-can’t-break-away, then this may be the book for you. There is a strong sense of realism woven into this story and like real life, sometimes it just ain’t pretty.

Neither is this novel perfect. There are some aspects I have issues with, one major; most of them minor and likely not to bother readers who enjoy their stories complex and challenging. But, I’ll get to those as I move along.

The Life in Five Novellas described in the title is, at its heart, the story of Jimmy ‘Strange’ Lyons, the alluring—and closeted–front man of The Mogs, a rock band that struggles through its meager beginnings and turbulent history to garner the press and adulation that kick-starts their rise to the top. It’s the story of who Jimmy is…or who he might actually be…or who he wants to be…or who he was, and that’s the beauty of this novel. Until the end, you’re never quite sure where the real Jimmy begins and ends.

Except for the first of the novellas, the stories are laid out in the third person omniscient POV. This POV choice lends itself well to the unfolding of the story as it affords the author the opportunity to delve into different character’s heads at different times, even within the same novella. Now, I’ve recently learned this is called “head jumping,” and can be a problem for some readers. For me, I’ve read a lot of fiction that functions this way and I enjoy it as a reader when it is done well. Fraina wrangles it well, although there are times that the shift of heads is so abrupt that one can become disoriented for a moment, wondering whose perspective the story is being told from now. Occasionally, this even happens within the same paragraph. Luckily, these moments are fairly rare, little rough patches that could have been smoothed out with a quick polish or a layout switch within the story. Now this may prove to be a bigger problem for others, but for me it was a minor grievance.

Jimmy is the star of our story, but like all good divas, he makes a late arrival on the scene, not appearing until the second to last page of the first novella. Set in 2002, the first of the five “chapters” focuses on Sam, a Brit in New York, who is a sound engineer by trade, but who fancies himself a director. The novella is told from his first person perspective and, as such, we get to learn much about Sam. He’s a bit pompous, a bit stand-offish. By his own admission, he doesn’t care for people very much; yet he is an expert at making accurate judgments about everyone he meets in the first few moments of their acquaintance. One day, bored with life in general, Sam ventures to the Met to see the Balthus exhibit and there he becomes entranced with the artist’s painting, The King of Cats. Sam is so fascinated that he ventures to the museum every day just to stare at the picture. He scans faces of the crowds he passes, hoping to see in them the reason the King is so appealing, so familiar to him. Soon, he becomes obsessed, eschewing gainful employment just so he can go to the museum and stare at the painting.

There he meets Elliot, a rather waif-ish innocent who, like Steve Buscemi in Fargo, just seems to have to say everything that comes into his head to everyone he meets. There is something appealing and yet uniquely irritating about Elliot; Sam is alternately drawn to and repelled by him. After several “chance” meetings,” the two have several not-so-tender interludes at Sam’s apartment, and Sam begins to wonder just how innocent this Elliot really is and how much of what Elliot told him is actually true. He soon discovers that all is not what it seems with Elliot, and the postcard of the King of Cats painting blown up into posters for one of the Mog’s concerts, he comes face to face with Elliot…and his keeper, Jimmy Lyons. But is even that relationship exactly what it seems?

I don’t want to go into to many details about the subsequent novellas, as the journey is half the fun. None of them, however, follow a traditional timeline; rather they jump from 2001 all the way back to 1987, in seemingly random fashion.

In the second installment, set in 2001, we are introduced to Jimmy, the oh-so-above-it-all rock star, his band mate and rival for control of the Mogs, Adam, and his “boyfriend” (for lack of a better term) Elliott, as the Mogs are on the cusp of signing a record deal that will hopefully put them over the top. We see the struggle for power between Jimmy and Adam, Adam’s hatred for the lead singer who co-opted his band and yet is the reason for its success, and Jimmy’s odd connection with the elusive Elliot. The stage is set.

The third novella, set in 1995, takes us back to the days when Jimmy and Adam first met, and Adam asks him to join a band Adam had organized with a group of friends. We see the friendship between the two men grow, only to be torn apart by bitterness and grasps for power. We see when Jimmy and Elliot first met, how they need and feed off one another, and yet how utterly bad each is for the other.

The fourth novella jumps forward to 2003, after the Mog’s first tour as a band of note. The closeted Jimmy has taken the plunge and decided to commit to a serious relationship for the first time in his life with the least likely of lovers. Elliot still hovers, intertwining his life with Jimmy’s and Jimmy’s lover, sowing seeds that will ultimately lead to a tragic resolution of the triangle.

The fifth and final novella takes us all the way back to 1987 England where we meet a young Jimmy who is only just discovering that music may be his ticket out of a less-than-idea family life. We see the relationships that formed who Jimmy will become and we see that even at a young age, his musical talent was undeniable. We see him blossom as a front man for his first group, a group that needs his youth and vitality and beauty. And by the end, we understand Jimmy a little better. We’re able to weed through all the drama and lies of the previous novellas to see a glimpse of the truth that makes a man.

The choice of the non-traditional structure is handled extremely well and while a reader might think that the placement of the various chapters is random, it is anything but. Fraina has clearly thought out the order of the stories, building a really exquisite sense of mystery around each of her characters, but particularly around Jimmy. By choosing this method of storytelling, Fraina is able to give us details that endear us to a character, only to throw us off kilter later when we discover that those “facts” may actually be lies. And this is where Fraina really impresses. She make you fall in love with Jimmy, convinces you that he is the most earnest person on the planet. She makes you realize how jealous Adam is, how Elliot is nearly a sociopath, how Jimmy desperately needs to escape his life. And then, by revealing events that occurred earlier (or later) in the characters’ lives, you come to wonder if it is Jim who is the user, the power-hungry aggressor, the sociopath. One moment you’ll love Jimmy and hate Elliot or Adam, and the next you’ll despise Jimmy and wish for nothing more than Elliot or Adam to get away from him. In short, the minute you think you’ve everything all figured out, Fraina pulls the rug out from under you, makes you reconsider your allegiances. It’s expertly done and anyone who has found themselves embroiled in the drama between dear friends will feel the truth of it.

The mercurial aspect of the characters, one would think, would lead to inconstancies within them. Not so here. Each voice remains intact, each character true to whom they are. With the inclusion of the final novella, Jimmy is clearly the fullest drawn of the primary characters as we get to delve into his past, but all of the characters are extremely dynamic and utterly fascinating on just about every level.

So what may you ask were my problems with the novel, other than the aforementioned “jumping heads”? Most are minor. There is one moment in the novel when Jimmy compares himself to two characters from the works of Shakespeare and that one moment completely jolted me out of the story. It just didn’t match Jim at all for me and it was the only time that I felt the author’s voice intruding on that of the character. The pacing on the final novella starts to drag about midway through and I thought some judicious editing would have helped this along. It also would have been nice to have seen more of Adam and Elliot’s pasts, to have a little fuller understanding of the genesis of their personalities, but this is a minor grievance as there can really only be one “star” in a rock band, and that star is very clearly Jimmy.

My biggest problem with the novel comes with the very first novella. Told in a completely different style that the other entries (first person rather than third omniscient), this first novella focuses primarily on Sam, a character who, ultimately, is never seen again. After investing so much time with Sam, I expected and wanted the story to come back around to him; yet it never does. While it is an excellent introduction to Elliot, I was left with a bit of a feeling of disappointment that Fraina never tied Sam back into the drama of the other characters. I felt a bit cheated of a scene I was waiting for. Looking back, I’d rather have spent that time more of the primary characters of the novel rather than becoming entangled with an interesting character that ultimately serves only a plot device. Still, the richness of the other characters, the details of the world in which the story takes place, the ease of Fraina’s storytelling overcame what to me was a major flaw.

In the end, King of Cats is a messy love triangle, a powerful examination of the malleability of truth and identity. It looks at our voyeuristic desire for people to be what we imagine them. It’s a dark treatise on the dynamics of sex and love and power. It is fascinating from beginning to end, and while it can be gut wrenching and depressing and brutal at times, it’s a rock and roll fable. Like life, The King of Cats is painful and heartbreaking, punctuated with intoxicating highs and bitter lows, but it is very, very much a ride I wouldn’t want to miss.