by Todd McEwen

Who sleeps with Katz is a seasonally chilled tale of cigarettes, good food, foot fetishism and death. Oh, and New York. Not the exported city – black-and-white images of skyscraper construction workers hung in suburban khazis – but a New York of detail, of minutiae and mutability.

      As with all cities, the senses are perpetually left wanting. You journey through the urban landscape, possibly around it, across it… Yet, even when living within its confines, there always comes that moment when your internal map runs out. Here be dragons, indeed.

      What Todd McEwen captures – exquisitely – is this broadening and bleeding of experience and sensation that occurs within the urbanite. His text is suitably multi-tiered, with the narrator describing a nostalgic city walk of the central and pseudonymous character, MacK. Part travelogue, part retrospective, part stream of consciousness, this engaging double-layered tale spins into a ménage à trios as the eponymous Isidor Katz nonchalantly steps into the limelight.

      He’s a larger than life man of passion who embraces all things historic about New York, while railing against the abandonment of his dear city. Its inhabitants no longer eat locally, preferring instead to take a taxi to a restaurant owned by a fashionable chef. Their trendy health kicks have lain siege to the cigarette kiosks and humidors so loved by both MacK and Isidor, and their corporate predilections have physically reworked the city’s layout as chain after chain run the smaller businesses out of town.

      Against these insidious and eroding forces, MacK and Isidor’s ‘little gods’ valiantly battle. The collection of city-based ephemera, the faultless presentation and decorum of the fish restaurant waiter, the Epicure Pipe Shop, a heartfelt appreciation of jazz, the perfectly mixed martini, the erotic allure of a well-shaped stiletto…

      It’s like an East Coast version of the Crane brothers although, thankfully, minus their pomposity. And the reason for this more empathetic grounding of character? MacK and Isidor are born and bred natives of the Big Apple. Their culture is, inescapably, imported; but the elements that they draw together in this, their romance of the city, are definitely of and from the street. No, as they say, adopted English accents here. No Yale-driven view of the city’s precious resources as commodities. Just a fondue appreciation of the melting pot, though it occasionally descends into a collation of items listed under the nebulous and questionable heading of taste.

      Isidor begins a search for a fabled curry called Naga. He tracks back and forth across the city, haranguing the proprietors of Bangladeshi restaurants with no luck. Then, just as he gives up all hope of every finding this most spiced of delicacies, the city seems to throw him the lead he’s been waiting for. The resultant curry leads to an almost hallucinogenic epiphany, an immediate hardwiring of the senses straight into the arterial ebb and flow of the metropolis. And, through this, Isidor immerses himself once again in all that he sees as being great with the urban while, simultaneously, distancing himself from everything he imagines as being destructive to his careworn idyll.

      It might seem an almost a futile pursuit, this drive to preserve the collective little gods in the face of an ever evolving city. And yet MacK and Isidor’s strength of character elevates them from potential grumpy old men to a pair of champions for the archaic. Their brand of persuasive conservatism holding sway with all but the most dedicated of futurists.

      Enter Mr Death centre stage…

      At the start of the book MacK is diagnosed with lung cancer, which subsequently acts as the catalyst for his day’s walk and city reminiscence. In this starkest of lights the little lists, and instances where a history of the mundane manifests itself, stand in a fresh and beautiful relief. A muted struggle, if you like, between a lost and child-like sense of wonder and the inevitably of the reaper. Which doesn’t mean that Who sleeps with Katz is dark and morbid. Far from it.

      While this isn’t a laugh-out-loud piece, the acrimonious relationship between the two central characters elicits wry smiles and a lingering amusement. It’s a book of whimsical, playful nostalgia and full of the cutting verbal ripostes we all dream we had the skill and courage to formulate. But more than the sum of all these parts, it’s a book about the importance of lasting friendship.

      Which brings us to the question postulated by the book’s title and an answer that isn’t as shocking as you might first suspect. Although sexual liaisons make up the bulk of the lists recorded here – incidentally weighted more towards MacK than Isidor – the notion of ‘sleeping’ with Mr Katz is encapsulated in one, almost sublime, memory.

      It’s the morning of Thanksgiving and MacK has just awoken on the floor of Isidor’s and his current girlfriend’s apartment. All the day holds is a chilly excursion to buy a turkey – with detour through the local watering hole – and a cosy afternoon of good food, drink and companionship. And, in the light of such simple pleasures, it’s nigh on impossible not to raise a olive-garnished glass in salute.