King of Cats (A Life in Five Novellas) - Blake Fraina
This is the most intriguing and engaging book Iíve read for a very long time. Iíve been immersed in it for three days and have almost bitten off peopleís heads if theyíve interrupted my reading. Iíve been living with Jimmy, Adam and (unfortunately) Elliot in my head so intently that being taken from them was almost painful. Which is odd, really, as the whole premise of this book is that you can never really know anyone, however hard you dig into their personalities or pasts. Iíll let the author say it far better than I:
Ultimately, itís our secrets that define us.
The book is told in the form of five novellas, all connected with the singer Jimmy Lyons (Jimmy Strange as he calls himself in the band). They move about in time so you see Jimmy first as a successful rock musician, then as someone arriving in New York, then as an even more successful musician and so on. Itís very cleverly done and made me immediately turn back to the start of the book as soon as Iíd finished and pick out bits that had confused me or intrigued me first time round now that I knew the reason for his strange behaviour. Or do I?
The book is peppered with really hot sexóbut for all the wrong reasons. It was only when I came to the last novella, Hidden History, that I got this. But the book has done that (confused my responses) all the way through. Itís provoked me, and thatís a pretty neat trick for a book after all this time.
The characters surrounding Jimmy also provoke an intense response. I donít think Iíve even taken a more violent dislike to anyone in a book as I did with Elliot, a boy who latches onto Jimmy early in his career and sticks there, limpet like, long past his sell by date. And I think the author is toying with me here, because as I so readily acknowledge, it is our secrets that define us. Elliot must have a lot of secrets; he must have his own story, which would be quite painful to hear. But as we almost vie for attention with him for Jimmy as we read, we donít really give him this chance. Adam is given more consideration. When he first see him heís a spiteful bore, using his money to manipulated Jimmy. Things change. Or do they?
I canít recommend this book highly enough. Itís totally contemporary, superbly well written and fascinating. It will move you, arouse you and suck you in until youíre as lost as the characters themselves.
Itís also a lesson in how to craft a unique novel.
Fraina contacted me several months ago to suggest, very politely, that I read his book.† At the time I had a huge stack of unread novels so I procrastinated, sticking the title into my folder of books-to-buy, and thought little more about it until LadyM told me a copy had arrived, sent by the author.†
Self-published writers waste creative energy struggling with editing, self-promotion and trying to persuade a satiated public to choose their baby rather than some other writerís book. I canít understand why the novel wasnít picked up by a mainstream publisher, because itís one of the most interesting of the many books featured here.† Its form is unusual, five inter-linked stories that weave back and forwards in time/place, from a small English town in 1987, to New York City, 2003.† Fraina writes well, with a good ear for dialogue.† He assembles a cast of characters you might not always like but want to find out what makes them tick.†
Appearances deceive.† We slashers know that.† No one in real life has any idea about MY other identity. Thatís the basis for this absorbing novel: the difference between what we say we are, and who we are in our most secret places. Which of these two people is the more interesting to get to know?† The hidden one, of course!
Itís a captivating book that demands close attention.† The narrative is non-linear, which can be confusing until you get into whoís who and whatís what.† I had to keep flicking back to fix where exactly in the timeline each part of the whole story lies.† Like a detective mystery we must sift through clues to reach ultimate truth.† By the time we leave them the characters are stripped bare, so finally we understand who they are, and why.† Thereís romance, but due to the timeslip nature of the narrative we donít find out whether or not it succeeds, though the signs arenít good.† I really hope that it does.† The most powerful story is the last, full of revelation but dark and disturbing to read.
In the opening story, a filmmaker becomes obsessed with a painting, King of the Cats by Balthus, an artist Iíd never heard of before.† Balthus said that a painting draws the true identity of the person being painted, in a kind of alchemy: ĎTo paint is not to represent but to penetrate, to go to the heart of a secret, to work in a way to reflect the interior image.í †I think that describes beautifully what Fraina achieves through his writing in this novel, like opening one of those Russian dolls. †Or the way a fanfiction writer takes known characters and writes the sub-text thereby creating a whole new story.
Jimmy Lyons is a beautiful rock guitarist, closeted and deeply troubled.† Damaged goods, he uses drugs & alcohol to dull the pain of his life experience.† Heís been involved for several years in a tempestuous secretive relationship with Elliot, a boy-man with serious emotional/psychological problems, both of them locked into a destructive pattern of manipulation and abuse.† Jimmy also has an on/off affair with rich kid Adam, whose fatherís money bankrolled the founding of their band, the Mogs.† Jimmy, Elliot and Adam form a bizarre triangle, a struggle for power and love you watch, drawn like a voyeur to a car wreck, hoping somehow itíll all work out, all the while knowing it canít.† The awful truth is that you can leave everything behind and start a new life far away, but your past is carried with you wherever you go, an imprint like the genetic code.
Jimmy Lyons is a captivating man who more than anything needs to be wrapped in someoneís arms and loved unconditionally.† Cursed with beauty and physical presence people long to possess and use for their pleasure, heís unable to give or receive tender affection. The rock star image is all front.† Heís angry, full of sadness and disappointment, crippled by low self-esteem, inside a frightened, lonely boy, terrified of being exposed and humiliated, treated as a thing to be used and abused.†
Our celebrity obsessed culture demands to know every minute detail of other peopleís lives, whether movie stars or reality TV participants, to hide humdrum or depressing reality.† Itís a glamour, empty of purpose, whereas this book provides real insight into human nature.† Like life, itís not always pretty, but you come away with greater understanding, and perhaps a little self-knowledge too.
This is a book with characters that are gay rather than a gay novel.† Itís got explicit sex and violence.† Parts of the story broke my heart.† This review canít do it justice and Iím reluctant to give too much away.† Read the book to discover its delights.† I hope Fraina is working on something else, because his talent as a writer shines from every page of this wonderful story I want to read again, to savour this time.† I only wish it was longer.
Frainaís website where you can read deleted scenes and other information about the book and its author:††† http://blakefraina.com/index.html
For information about Balthus:†
Published by iUniverse.com ISBN: 0595307566Buy in the States from Lambda Rising Bookstore here