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Medium Cool 

James Wolcott on lowbrow vs. highbrow, common sense and his first novel, The Catsitters

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001

I bumped into James Wolcott two blocks before I reached Canteen, the cavernous Manhattan restaurant in which we had arranged to meet. Dressed in a striped cotton shirt, wrinkled khakis and a red L.L. Bean jacket, the most feared critic in America was shuffling along the street under a plus-size umbrella. Though infrequently photographed, he was easy to spot: rotund belly, massive forehead, lank hair and a spectacular collection of dark circles under piercing blue eyes.

At one of Canteen’s orange booths, where we sat far from the well-dressed Soho-ites, Wolcott ordered a plate of macaroni and cheese and a Coke. If he‘d finished off his meal with apple pie I wouldn’t have been surprised. (He ordered a second Coke instead.) Both in person and on the page, Wolcott is a strikingly unpretentious fellow -- appropriately, since one of his critical specialties is to skewer the pretensions of others.

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Yet the cultural critic for Vanity Fair is one of the highest-paid journalists in America, with a salary said to lie within the $250,000--$400,000 range. It‘s serious money for a writer, and he works hard to make those Conde Nast dollars count. In an age in which critics are either toothless or equipped with vast, cosmetic smiles, Wolcott draws blood. The insulted and the injured include Maureen Dowd, Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Woody Allen, Pauline Kael, confessional writers of all stripes, TV pundits, Darren Star, Michael Kinsley, Steven Brill -- call them the Wolcott Wounded.

Wolcott is much more than just a sharpshooter, however. There’s real intellectual sinew behind his barbs. He is an unusually versatile critic, able to follow a masterly dissection of Martin Amis‘ prose style one month -- “Amis’s early work was fast, mean, and vernacular, a sporty convertible capable of darting through traffic and turning on a hair. With fame and maturity his prose has lost its racing stripes. The slang and noise-density of his early work have been replaced with leather upholstery and a parliamentary drone” -- with a thorough trashing of reality TV the next -- “Survivor is economic Darwinism in a loincloth, complete with product placements . . . Today‘s Peeping Tom casts a cold eye, now that he’s become an entrepreneur.” In the last few years he has written about Alfred Hitchcock, Sex and the City, lesbian chic, confessional literature, scuzz movies and the Canadian writer-director Ken Finkleman. He a also contributes lengthy book reviews to The New Republic and the London Review of Books.

A college dropout and autodidact from a Catholic family in Baltimore, Wolcott began his career in the 1970s at The Village Voice, where he wrote about everything from politics to punk while particularly endearing himself to readers of his television column, Medium Cool, which ran in the paper from 1978 to 1982. (“I meet people now who‘ve barely read anything I’ve written since then and still remember it,” he told me, a claim I was able to verify a few hours later when I told a friend that I‘d just interviewed Wolcott. “Really?” he replied. “I loved that column he did in The Voice. What’s he been doing since then?”) Following an acrimonious parting of the ways with The Voice in 1982, Wolcott moved to Vanity Fair under Tina Brown, followed her to The New Yorker in 1992, then went back to Vanity Fair in 1996, where he has remained ever since, reading the culture‘s tea leaves and occasionally pouring boiling water over his victims’ hands.

Given how quickly and fluently Wolcott speaks, it‘s surprising that he’s not a more prolific writer. Blame it on perfectionism. (“There are two types of journalistic assignments,” he told me, quoting Martin Amis‘ dad, Kingsley. “The hard ones that turn out to be hard, and the easy ones that turn out to be hard.”) The perfectionism extended to the writing of his first novel, The Catsitters, published this week by HarperCollins. It’s a light novel, ideal for the beach, but Wolcott labored over it for the best part of a decade. Featuring an amiable actor-bartender hero named Johnny Downs -- a man so mild he has been “pussywhipped by an actual cat” (his beloved Slinky) -- and a ferocious Southern belle named Darlene Ryder (imagine Camille Paglia as a relationships counselor) who sets out to turn Johnny into marriage material, the book is an unpretentious and enjoyable romantic comedy of a curiously old-fashioned sort.

Undeniably, that comes as a surprise. But having spent the last quarter of a century showing how clever he is in his criticism, Wolcott evidently didn‘t feel the need to prove it all over again by putting on an intellectual fireworks display in his first novel. In fact, one of the notable things about The Catsitters is that it doesn’t feel like a first novel at all. This is a controlled -- almost too controlled -- performance, in which, unlike most first novels, the parts have been sacrificed to the whole and not the other way around. It‘s also, let’s face it, a commercial work of fiction -- a book with readers in mind, and perhaps viewers too.

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