KRAZI KAT A novel in Five Panels By Jay Cantor Knopf. 245 pp. $16.95
William Randolph Hearst was the ultimate conspicuous consumer. Where the rest of us might splurge on a cashmere sweater for therapy, he would go to Europe and buy a mead hall. (It might end up rebuilt in the Hearst Castle, that testimony to acquisitiveness run amok on the central California coast, but more likely it would simply languish in a warehouse.) He also enjoyed the luxury of patronizing his mistress, Marian Davies, whose films he bankrolled; the acidulous San Francisco writer Ambrose Bierce, whose column he ran; and the great cartoonist George Herriman, whose strip "Krazy Kat" his papers carried for 30 quirky years.
Herriman wrought his variations on a triangular theme to funny-page perfection. Krazy, a cat of indeterminate gender, is enamored of Ignatz, a male mouse who does not return his/her love. To discourage Krazy, Ignatz hurls bricks at him, but the cat mistakes the blows for love pats. The party of the third part, a canine policeman named Offissa Bull Pupp, regularly jails the mouse for assault and battery -- a reflection not only of the cop's penchant for law and order but also of his unrequited fascination with the cat. All of this unfolds in Coconino County, whose sere plains, contorted cacti and umber monoliths were modeled after Monument Valley, a favorite haunt of the artist (as well as the setting for innumerable Hollywood westerns).
Though never widely popular, the strip drew the loyalty of such tastemakers as Dorothy Parker, Gilbert Seldes and e.e. cummings. More to the point, Hearst loved it. And so it continued -- bricks flying, mouse in the calaboose, cat plotting to spring him -- until Herriman's death in 1944.
Now comes novelist and critic Jay Cantor with a novel populated by the same characters and manifesting some of the same riffs. His guiding gimmick is that Krazy and her troupe still exist in some sketchy limbo, hoping to make a comeback. But their innocence seems to have died with their creator. Ignatz has become a sex-obsessed shrink, the Pupp is now his best buddy and Krazy no longer exudes little red hearts when beaned by a brick.
In the same desiccated Southwest where Krazy and his/her kohorts kavorted, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project colleagues built and tested the first atom bomb, and by Cantor's lights there is a connection between the tests and the strip's demise. In successive panels (chapters) Krazy undergoes psychoanalysis to assuage atomic guilt, links up with an independent producer who promises to bring the strip to the screen, evolves from the kidnap victim of a terrorist gang called COMISALAD (the COMIc Strip Artists Liberation Army -- Division One) to their Patty Hearst-like accomplice, and cottons to sex in a big, feline way.
Blessedly, Cantor is adept at the sort of verbal noodling that Herriman put into his characters' balloons. Krazy complains of having had a stage mother, "a harpy childhood." The land of the Comekissthedoors, she laments, is now overrun by New Clear Scientists. Facing the possibility that Ignatz's modest missile-throwing might have spurred Oppenheimer to build the Bomb makes her "gnawshush." There are also tropes with no resemblance to the Coconino idiom. The producer, for example, is endowed with "a wide mouth, a bald dome, and a broad nose that occupied the middle of his face by droit de seigneur."
It is disconcerting to find Krazy in heat. (In aid of his sex scenes, Cantor brands the cat as unequivocally female, a move that, paradoxically, loosens the original story line's kinkiest knot.) It is out of character for the insouciant Ignatz to parrot his father's lugubrious maxim: "Why bother? The world is a suicidal thought in the mind of God and we're all little animals crawling in a dung heap."
But Cantor means for his book to ruffle its readers, and he must be allowed some liberties with the old Coconino Crowd. The reason his embellishments ultimately seem forced is that he has failed to capture a crucial element of Herriman's mosaic: its playful stretching of formal boundaries.
In his best strips Herriman experimented with the conventions and limits of the comics page. In a characteristic four-panel number from 1939, the jail in the last panel is barely roughed in, and Offissa Pupp takes umbrage. Looking directly out from the page, he admonishes the artist: "Wa-a-l ... finish it!!! Y'got kartoonist's kramp?"
Had Cantor devised comparable ways of fooling around with the conventions of printed prose, he might have gotten away with the alien and jolting paces he puts Herriman's characters through. As it is, Krazy Kat the novel is clever and ribald but untrue to both the letter and spirit of its monumental namesake. The reviewer is a Washington editor and writer.