Paint it Black
The follow-up to 2001’s wildly successful White Oleander, Janet Fitch’s new novel is an intense exploration of grief and loss. It begins with two deaths that serve to place the narrative chronologically and illuminate its themes: the assassination of John Lennon and the overdose/suicide of Germs frontman Darby Crash. Waifish art model Josie Tyrell is a 19-year-old punker scratching out an existence in Los Angeles, ruminating on the fact that the death of the cult hero Crash is overshadowed completely by the hole in the world torn by the loss of Lennon--though the former means much more to her personally. But a third death waits in the wings; she is about to discover that her boyfriend, Michael, the privileged, tormented artist son of a famous concert pianist, has shot himself dead in a fleabag motel.
Inevitably, a war begins, with Josie and Michael’s mother, Meredith, as the combatants. It’s based partially on class: Josie is poor, a scrawny piece of Okie white trash. Meredith is disgusted at her precious son’s dalliance with a girl so far beneath him, seeing Josie as nothing but a social-climbing gutter rat. But more central is a perverse jealousy--Meredith and Michael’s relationship flirted dangerously with the incestuous, and that Josie is poor only heightens the sting that Michael loved another woman in the first place. So Meredith torments Josie, calling her at all hours to tell her that Josie’s the one that should be dead, attacking her at the funeral, having her followed by a private detective. When the battle is joined, the two women find themselves in a curious deadlock of mutual need and shared grief.
Fitch’s baroque sense of detail is amazing--her description of Meredith’s seldom occupied, moldering mansion is so finely wrought that you can almost smell the musty sheets. The entire book is suffused with a sense of gilded decay of body and soul, and it’s wonderfully done and immensely sad. Her writing can grate occasionally, too; Josie’s habit of using words like "cigges" and "voddy" gets tiresome, and some of Michael’s pronouncements sound as though they leapt from the pages of a Victorian novel. It is hard to believe that any young man, no matter what his upbringing, would describe himself as "not sportif" unless he was wearing a cravat at the time.
But Fitch’s mastery is evident in the way she limns the sadness of Josie’s situation. It’s clear that Josie was drowning in love before she was drowning in grief, losing herself in this creature from a rarified world that to her seemed almost mythical. When Meredith presents Josie with a life preserver, we know it’s made out of lead, and we hold our breath hoping Josie will finally break the surface and catch hers.