“It was 1994, the year of bad, low-blood-sugar decisions,” begins Ali Liebegott in her frank, funny and painfully realistic new novel Cha-Ching!
I remember making a lot of bad decisions during my own version of 1994 – and Liebegott’s heroine, Theo, certainly makes her share in this novel – but the author smartly resists the urge to pigeonhole her narrative into a time capsule, aside from the brief date-drop and the fact that we are introduced to the protagonist while she is watching a show that evokes the Fox Network’s decade-long devotion to police chases.
Theo is a square peg in the mold of everyone from Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man to Kerouac’s renderings of Neal Cassady. The 29-year-old lesbian has had enough of her hippy and hooker surroundings in San Francisco, and dreams of becoming an artist in New York City. She worships Van Gogh and frequently mentions reading Dostoyevsky, although she never exactly finds her own home inside a creative medium. On the day she plans to move to New York, she witnesses the horrific act by a gang of teenagers who toss a pit bull wrapped in a duffel bag off of a two-story building. Miraculously, the dog survives and becomes Theo’s new companion – and sometimes conscience – on her journey to start a new life.
Theo renames the dog “Cary Grant,” thinking the long scar on the mutt’s head resembles the stiff part in the hair of an old movie star, and bonds with her on the long drive as the dog slowly comes out of a post-surgical anesthesia haze and gingerly takes to her new owner. The pair arrive in Yonkers and suffer a false start, spending several nights sleeping in a car before briefly sharing a shabby subletted room with a cruel landlord.
Liebegott palpably evokes the romanticized transience that became a huge part of post-World War II American literature, but she also lays in plenty of contemporary notes of despair into her prose. Fitting into society – especially when your appearance and sexual preference aren’t necessarily in the mainstream – can lead to a lonely life, even in the enlightened digital age.
“Yonkers was a fucking time warp,” the author observes. “The gay people in Yonkers seemed to lack not just gay pride, but gay ambition. A week removed from the gay mecca, and Theo was already fantasizing about founding a gay support group.
Theo eventually reconnects with Sammy, a girl she met in jail years earlier after both were arrested at a protest, and relocates to dreamy Brooklyn. The two girls – with a still timid but gradually less-traumatized Cary Grant in tow – form a deep, platonic bond, and move in together to a grubby apartment with uneven floors and a pest infestation so bad, the electrical wiring is literally stopped up with roach corpses. Still, Theo idealizes her new surroundings.
She loved New York. It was authentic. The energy in New York was different from anywhere else she’d ever been—it was like a blanket that she wanted to rub her face in.
One of the neat tricks Liebegott pulls of in Cha-Ching! are the powerful descriptions that convince the reader, with Theo, to venerate the broken pieces of a city and root for the broken heart of a protagonist who often wanders blindly – and willingly – towards certain danger.
Theo has a terribly addictive personality, and gambling is her heroin. While in-between jobs, she wanders into an off-track betting establishment and wins more than five thousand dollars on a single longshot wager, igniting a dormant fire and setting up an inevitable collision course with failure that anyone could see coming a mile away. Still, you hold your breath and root for her each time she spins a wheel or pulls a lever.
After wandering into a library, Theo meets her match in Marisol, a beautiful young librarian with a similar tendency towards terrible decision making. Their awkward courtship fuels the second half of the novel the way the journey from San Francisco to Brooklyn carried the first act.
Marisol loses her job and spends a single night as a stripper where Sammy bartends, while Theo begins to squander her OTB winnings on a series of trips to Atlantic City. The couple share a raw courtship that includes a thwarted mugging, a series of blackouts and several pushes of the reset button.
Liebegott doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of new love, but leaves in all the grizzly details from simple self-doubt to one of the most clumsily-realistic sex scenes – painful on many levels – in modern literature. Still, she manages to keep the dreaminess in line with the grittiness.
“There are doors that open onto patches of blue Caribbean,” she writes, as Theo and Marisol check into a hotel room together for the first time. “Theo had seen them in art movies. They symbolized escape and opportunity. That aqua hue that promises everything. Women could be these doorways.”
Theo never comes close to her dream of becoming an artist. Instead, she is stuck being young and out of place, crawling towards thirty as if it were perpetual jury duty.
Cha-Ching! is as much the sound of a blind optimist wandering into a casino as it is the sound of a young woman finding someone who just might be her soulmate. Liebegott has unleashed a book that’s part road novel, part portrait of a would-be artist as a young woman and part unabashed romance. Through all the virtual and literal dirt and grime and bruising and chaos, there is a light left on in Theo that believes a saving grace could be found waiting behind any door. The idea that desperation doesn’t necessarily preclude optimism is a powerful sentiment – it’s as contemporary and universal as they come, and it’s delivered with bracing authenticity here.