By Ali Liebegott
City Light. 252 pp. $15.95 paperback
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Reviewed by Katie Haegele
When we first meet Theo, she's about to leave San Francisco for New York, where her life will be totally different.
In New York, in a sweet apartment with wood floors, she will not drink or smoke. She'll water the geraniums on her fire escape and stop waking up with weird bruises from half-remembered bar accidents the night before. Any sensible reader will fall right in love with Theo and her doomy hopefulness, tumbling down into the immediacy and warmth of her narration.
But Theo's cross-country road trip, which she makes with her best friend, the pit bull Cary Grant, throws a stumbling block in her path. Needing a shower and a good night's sleep, she gets a room at a little motel beside a dog track and casino. After tossing and turning, she leaves her bed and walks into the casino like a zombie in a B movie, proceeding to lose several hundred dollars on slot machines and games of roulette in the middle of the night. It's only then that we learn that Theo has a problem besides the drinking, and the reader gets caught up in the tense moment, worrying Theo will never make it to New York, but instead live out the rest of her life in this terrible motel room.
But she does get there, fighting her demons mightily in order to start a life. The character is about to turn 30, but her life is so unsettled that much of the novel feels like a coming-of-age story, classic and lovely. "Now that Theo had an apartment, she needed to get a job so she could pay Sammy back. She'd always had a job. A job made her feel grounded, even if she hated it. Maybe it was the hatred that grounded her. She also needed a library card, a haircut, and a new pair of shoes. With these she felt she could survive anything."
In the face of its difficult subject matter, much of the novel is like this - earnest and innocent, hopeful and, maybe more than anything, funny. A lesbian whose gender presentation confuses people, Theo narrates her sometimes awkward existence in the world as if she's a creature that has just been spotted by a nature documentarian. "The timid sirma'amsir can be seen here hiding in the thick foliage, drinking Coca-Cola and chain-smoking."
Cha-Ching! is Liebegott's third book, and her writing, which has had flashes of brilliance all along, has gotten stronger and more fully developed. There is something about her perspective that makes her descriptions of things utterly unique. The depressed protagonist of her first novel, The Ihop Papers (who we understand as a stand-in for Liebegott in the same way that Cha-Ching! feels largely autobiographical) describes trying to dig up a scoop of the restaurant's desiccated ice cream as being like "trying to scoop a sundae from a headstone." In Cha-Ching!, Theo works as a cashier at the Party Store and as a janitor at a "junk mail factory." Liebegott is a connoisseur of crummy jobs.
But more than anything, Cha-Ching! is about addiction, and Liebegott makes sure we understand just how out of control it feels to start drinking or gambling again after you said you'd quit. When Theo's life is rolling along, steady and sober, the reading is easy. But when she first strolls into the dog-track casino, or a few months later when she walks a little too casually into an off-track betting parlor, the novel's atmosphere turns thick and tense. Some of Liebegott's descriptions of gambling are sweatily exciting - Theo wants to feel "those bright-colored packets of endorphins hanging like candy bars fall and dissolve in her brain." Others are simply bleak: "The casino was decorated for Christmas and full of people sitting alone." Still others are downright spooky. "Now that she was drinking again, anything could be normal. She had become a ghost walking beside her ghost self; when you're a ghost, you can be anything."
To be sure, the biggest pleasure of this book, besides the companionship of the sensitive Theo, is its language. Liebegott's style is mordant and naturalistic - seemingly effortless - and shot through with the most incredible sadness. In one highly detailed, almost erotic scene, Theo tries on and buys herself a badly needed pair of socks. This small moment of self-care is devastating and hopeful in equal measure, and brings to mind Ray Carver's heartbreaker of a poem, "Soda Crackers." (Read it and weep.)
A reviewer on Goodreads or Amazon complained that she wished this book were longer, not because it's too short, but because she wanted to spend more time in it, and I agree. I want Liebegott's writing to go on and on. You get the impression that living inside her head full time isn't always easy, but it sure is a nice place to visit.