Monday, August 2, 2021

Waltzing the Cat, by Pam Houston

This 1998 novel-in-stories delves into the adventuresome love-challenged life of Lucy O’Rourke: mid-thirties, photographer, river guide, child of alcoholics, who doesn’t trust herself and finds untrustworthy men to practice her self-sabotage on. The writing is salty, frank, often funny, but also barbed. She knows (mostly) what she’s doing, that she can’t travel to the land of reliable lovers from where she lives on precipices – but that doesn’t stop her from her next fling. 

She has a handful of steadfast friends who keep trying to aim her better directions, but they can’t keep pace with her explorations heading all the wrong places. These are great stories – she can spin a yarn with such intensity, you know the dangerous parts have to be true: “[W]e were about to go straight down over the seven-story rock. We would fall through the air off the face of that rock, land at the bottom of a seven-story waterfall, where there would be nothing but rocks and tree limbs and sixty-some thousand feet per second of pounding white water which would shake us and crush us and hold us under until we drowned.” 

 She injects notes of mysticism as straightforward reportage: “ ‘I saw Carlos Castaneda in an airport last week,’ I said. ‘He tried to tell me some important things.’… I was getting closer to something then and I could feel it, like maybe I had jumped, for a moment, onto the wheel that makes everything turn, and at any second it might send me flying backwards, and I didn’t want to miss anything in the moment I was there.” 

That’s Houston in a nutshell: she’s flung, she’s in free-fall, but meanwhile the sight is amazing and all she can do is take it all in – thoughts about survival, personal well-being, are submerged. She cycles through men with fine qualities and deep failings, having thrills and fun and grief, but as each one fades into “that was never going to work” she bobs back to the surface, more exhilarated than chastened, unable to keep the next collision from pulling her down. As she claws her way through the Tenebrae of her disastrous upbringing, the reader realizes being sensible and steady is beyond her, so we just come along for a highly entertaining ride. You should too.