MY CAT SPIT McGEE

By Willie Morris

Random House. 141 pp. $18.95

"I suppose," Willie Morris writes toward the end of this book about his beloved cat, "this has really been a little tale about time in its passing, as all stories must be--of life moving on, I think." Those words now have an unintended poignancy, for Morris died three months before the publication of "My Cat Spit McGee." As it happens, this is not his last book--he wrote the text for "Mississippi," a book of photos by his son, David Rae Morris, to be published next year--but it probably is the last of his intensely personal works.

On the other hand, all of Morris's work was intensely personal, as he was, throughout his three-plus decades as editor and writer, wholly in the grip of autobiography. He practiced that trade with uncommon art and humor in his deservedly celebrated first book, "North Toward Home," but--as is often the case when a first book sets a dauntingly high standard--he had trouble measuring up to it ever after, especially in its disappointing sequel, "New York Days."

Morris was a person of great passions, all of which he delighted in sharing with anyone within hearing or reading distance, some of which he was more successful in communicating than others. He loved animals, dogs most especially, and enjoyed a gratifying success in 1995 with "My Dog Skip," an unabashedly sentimental recollection and celebration of the dog who was his boyhood companion; a movie based on the book is to be released next year.

"My Cat Spit McGee" is a sequel of sorts to that book. Like its predecessor, it teeters at the edge of the maudlin--a pitfall into which Southern writers with a gift for lush prose are wont to tumble--but it is also, like its predecessor, funny and endearing. It is the testament of a man who grew up hating cats and learned to love them, and as such is sure to touch a responsive chord in other people--their numbers surely are legion--who have had similar experiences.

Morris grew up in small-town Mississippi of the 1930s and '40s, when it wasn't unusual to be a cat-hater. Yazoo and other towns were in "a dog culture," where cats were "universally considered dumb, vain, and coldhearted, not to mention remote, calculating, and sinister." Cruelty to cats was common (as it was in the small Virginia town where I grew up):

"We knew of men who went out in pickup trucks along the back roads and shot stray cats with .22 rifles for target practice. It was commonly known that a pair of older high school boys, the meanest boys in town, went around the countryside torturing stray cats--tying powerful firecrackers to their tails and igniting them, dousing them with gasoline and burning them alive, tying them up and dismembering them with sharpened knives."

Presumably Morris himself wasn't guilty of such behavior, but he found little to like about cats and much to loathe. Then, a decade ago, he felt in love with and eventually married a woman, JoAnne, who turned out to be "a Cat Woman, which was considerably more than I had even remotely bargained for." You could write the rest of the story yourself, in broad outline if not specific detail. JoAnne was given a kitten for Christmas by one of her sons, the kitten grew into a cat and had kittens of her own, one of which, a little white ball, Morris named Spit McGee, after a character in a children's book he'd written, "a mischievous and resourceful boy who could spit farther than anyone else."

At first Morris kept his distance, but gradually he began to find himself addressing the cat affectionately: "How could I have fathomed then how much I would grow to love him?" The cat had, as cats are wont to do, its share of adventures and scrapes, and Morris bailed him out of trouble on numerous occasions, which only intensified the bond between the two. Morris found the cat's personality--"cranky, playful, unpredictable, smart, ornery, reflective"--much to his liking, and developed a powerful respect for "his rare and incredible intelligence." He taught the cat to walk on a long leash and began to take him along on the motor trips through Mississippi that were among Morris's greatest pleasures.

Other cats entered Morris's life. A girl in the neighborhood asked what he'd learned from them, to which he replied: "I've learned to care for them on their own terms. And I know they care for us a lot. And don't try to figure them out too much." No one who's spent much time in the company of cats will find fault with that.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.