Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's Like This, Cat!

Our book today is Emily Neville's 1963 Newbery Medal winner, It's Like This, Cat, the lean and quirky and utterly touching story of a fourteen-year-old boy, David Mitchell, living "right in the middle of New York City" with his blustering, sharp-tongued father and his worrying, long-suffering mother. One of David's neighbors - one of his few sanctuaries from the drudgery of school and the tension of home - is an elderly woman named Kate, who, of course, keeps a small herd (gaggle? crash? who knows? It should be a 'disdain' - a disdain of cats) of cats in her apartment. It's from Kate that David adopts the Cat of the book's title, and from that point on, Cat serves as an entirely silent Greek chorus and a consistent touchstone for almost all the action of the novel. There are long stretches where the reader forgets Cat is even around, but Neville has an easy, natural way of bringing the action back to him at regular intervals.

The main stories of the book are intensely human, however. There's the tension between David and his father (Neville does a perfect job of neither softening nor vilifying David's father - and she never makes David himself a little plaster saint, either), the growing friendship between David and Tom, an older boy who's frustrated at his life's lack of direction, and most of all the sweet, budding romance between David and Mary, a girl from Coney Island who takes an interest in Cat, and then in David himself. And as with so many quintessentially New York novels, the city itself is a character - a rude, elbowy character who's constantly looking to upstage everybody else. Descriptions of New York - Coney Island, the Fulton Fish Market, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Macy's - spool lovingly through every page of this book, and readers less than half a century old will find quite a few of those descriptions as antiquated as tintypes from the Old West, even while they're registering the eternal parts:
The regular park man got sunstroke or something, so I earned fourteen dollars raking and mowing in Gramercy Park in the middle of August. Gramercy Park is a private park. You have to own a key to get in, so the city doesn't take care of it.

Real paper money, at this time of year especially, is very cheering. I head up to Sam Goody's to see what records he's got on sale and what characters are buying them. Maybe I'll buy something, maybe not, but as long as I've got money in my pocket, I don't feel like the guy is glaring at me for taking up floor space.

Along the way I walk through the library, the big one on Forty-second Street. You go in by the lions on Fight Avenue, and there's all kinds of pictures and books on exhibit in the halls, and you walk through to the back, where you can take out the books. It's nice and cool, and nobody glares at you unless you make a lot of noise or go to sleep. I can take books out of here and return them at the Twenty-third Street branch, which is handy.

The shops might change, but the sprawling inner geography of childhood never does, and it's captured with loving precision in this book (and in the delightful line-drawings by Emil Weiss, who also drew the original cover). David's adventures take him all over the landscape of a city that's radically changed since 1963 - his lawyer father and non-working mother couldn't possibly afford their West Side apartment these days, for instance, and young adult fiction has changed too. Violence, abuse, abandonment - these are standard things in our current fiction. Readers of The Hunger Games will find it difficult to believe the rather tame arguments between David and his father could once have been considered a daring step in fiction - and yet it was such a step, and Emily Neville was bravely championed in taking it by her fearless editor, the mighty Ursula Nordstrom, who brought this and so many other books into existence.

So a stinging, smart-aleck coming-of-age novel has been greened and softened by time into something that will strike most New York readers as wistfully sentimental. That certainly happens in fiction, but the power of the story has remained undimmed all these years. It'll move you and make you smile - and draw you back to periodic re-readings. If it can do that to a card-carrying dog-person, it can do that to anybody.

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