Who Sleeps With Katz by Todd McEwen

In search of a perfect Martini in Manhattan
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The Independent Culture

It wouldn't be giving away this novel's plot - because there is, as such, no plot, but a loop of finely crafted, elegiac digressions into anecdotal years of living, walking, loving, arguing, smoking and drinking in Manhattan, which gradually coalesce into a fond resumé of affairs that lead inevitably to the ritual of putting oneself in the right frame of mind for that all-important first Martini of the evening - to say that MacK (short for MacKenzie) is dying of cancer.

Who Sleeps With Katz opens bullishly and closes poignantly with MacK shooting the breeze with his friend Isidor Katz. MacK sleeps with Katz only in the sense that they are fellow-travellers in their adoration of New York City: more precisely, Manhattan, whose small sidewalk and shop-window gods they revere with the fierce passion of former outsiders, MacK hailing from California and Iz from over the river in New Jersey.

Observation of autumnal, "apple-cold" New York underpins Todd McEwen's beautifully crisp writing. The novel begins as an almost Whitmanesque hommage to the city's delights: such as Lenin's Tomb, a cash machine set in red granite beneath an enormous company building off Madison Square, whose awful weight forces his paltry cash out "like squished fruit". In some degree this rich detail is task-avoidance. Like John Lanchester's Mr Phillips, who manically walks through London trying to evade the fact of his redundancy, MacK is nerving himself up to cope with his imminent loss of health - and how that will affect his relationship with Iz. Who Sleeps With Katz gracefully modulates from a mnemonic mapping of the city, as though MacK's mind's eye were a dolly-mounted camera roving through the past, into a paean to this quietly cherished friendship.

This is a masculine book without machismo. I heartily applaud McEwen's elevation of the fundamental importance to men of dissecting the world's ephemera in bars over a beer and cigar; but the vignettes of MacK's companionship with Iz, and his too-few relationships with women, are recalled with a balancing tenderness and humour. MacK's anxious overtures to Olive, his mismatched liaison with the career-oriented Tumbleson, or his hilariously unlustful endeavours to negotiate the bohemian Rosenthal into bed: these optimistic sallies embed a certain nobility of effort in a lacklustre priapic career.

After a Thanksgiving dinner spent dressing down a mutual friend, Iz and his sassy partner, Mary-Ann, lace up boxing gloves. MacK watches them sparring in the living room, jabbing with fists and words. This surreal interlude is typical of McEwen's wordy engagement with his characters. MacK and Iz talk their way through Manhattan. The inventive tangents of their conversations bears witness to McEwen's superb wordsmithing as he collages their friendship, and their beloved city, with tirades, anecdotes, reflections and arguments.

I can't help feeling that Who Sleeps With Katz communes with Wayne Wang's movie, Smoke. MacK and Iz may no longer banter in a corner tobacconist's, but they remonstrate with gusto over that perfect Martini, their vital memories consecrated by place and hope, then stoke a Promethean pipe before walking defiantly into the Manhattan evening.