Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "Puss-Cat" and "The White Cat"

Collection: Tails of Wonder and Imagination: Cat Stories
Editor: Ellen Datlow

Title: Puss-Cat
Author: Reggie Oliver

Godfrey is a washed up theater actor who used to perform in supporting roles alongside the late Sir Roderick Bentley, a legendary thespian. In the story Godfrey is sitting around talking about Roderick ("Roddy") over drinks, and even though Godfrey is an interesting man in his own right - world-weary and full of forced cheer, his tongue loosened by drink - you sense that his life has revolved and will always revolve around Roddy. "Puss-cat" is the term of endearment that Roddy, an insatiable womanizer, used for all of his girlfriends and mistresses, and Godfrey spends the most time talking about one of them: Yolande, an ingenue who caught Roderick's attention after she berated him for hurting a stray cat that hung around the theater where they were rehearsing. As Godfrey puts it:
Yolande, you see, was one of those people who is instantly drawn to anything even more defenceless than herself.

There's so much deliciousness in this story, the way it's crafted in a loose narrative where each detail slips in at just the right moment. In Godfrey's reminiscences the characters come alive: Roddy, grand and careless, the charismatic egotist par excellence, and Yolande, who is way in over her head when it comes to love and life and the often sordid business of theater. And Godfrey himself, with his witty asides and drink-deadened heart, what little surprises he has in store for us. I love how the humor in the story can suddenly give way to a deep bruising darkness.

I also love the detail about each theater having its own cat, a stray who saunters around and owns the place (and keeps mice from chewing on wires and cables). Isn't it curious that Roddy, a man of the theater who calls all his girlfriends "puss-cat," really hates cats? Theater cats are a critical part of this tale.


Title: The White Cat
Author: Joyce Carol Oates

There was a gentleman of independent means who, at about the age of fifty-six, conceived of a passionate hatred for his much-younger wife's white Persian cat.

Julius Muir is in his fifties; Alissa, his wife, is in her thirties. It's her second marriage, and his first. She's pursuing an acting career in the city and spends a lot of time with her circle of theater friends, including men her own age. Julius meantime hangs around his large estate outside the city collecting valuables and wondering why he still feels lonely.

Into this picture of marital health steps Miranda, the cat. Miranda seems to show affection to everyone but Julius, and it drives him up the wall. He bought her, didn't he? Out of his loving, considerate heart he gave her as a gift to his wife, to cuddle and dote on. He sustains her, provides her with a home. Why won't she let him touch her? Why won't she love him? If someone were to ask him, "Julius, dear boy, is it really the cat that's bothering you or is it your wife?" he would say that of course it's not his wife. He loves his wife; it's just her cat he can't stand. Her beautiful ungrateful cat.

So he starts plotting how to kill the cat and make it look like an accident. It's a sad spectacle for the most part. Creepy and pitiable. He married a woman who is unsuited to him and to his ideal of marriage, and he thinks offing her cat will change things? But he's not really thinking, is he; he's going off the deep end.

Sometimes a story has a dominant color, and for this one it's a pale icy blue. Husband and wife may be cordial to one another but there's a chill on the marriage. Even Julius Muir's passions give off little heat. I see him bluish and oxygen-starved, with little to nourish him from within or from without.

Love can't be bought or demanded. And revenge doesn't always go as planned. It's painful to watch Julius square off against a house cat, and feel the futility of everything he does. Tormented by the thought that maybe a man like him can't inspire love.


Other stories from this collection: Coyote Peyote (by Carole Nelson Douglas), Every Angel is Terrifying (by John Kessel), Tiger in the Snow (by Daniel Wynn Barber), Gordon the Self-Made Cat by Peter S. Beagle, and Guardians by George R. R. Martin.


This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #23 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.