Standards of living
by Jim Piechota
Cha-Ching! by Ali Liebegott; City Lights Books, $15.95
Ali Liebegott's 2007 award-winning debut The IHOP Papers, a hilarious and poignant coming-of-age novel about a recovering alcoholic waitress traversing life and love, was a defining moment for the author. It was followed up by the resonant book-length poem The Beautifully Worthless, and both achievements soon put this San Francisco author on the literary map.
Liebegott continues this winning streak with her third novel Cha-Ching!, tracing the life and times of compelling lead character Theo, a restless lesbian with a military hairstyle (which makes her gender-ambiguous enough to nickname herself "sirma'amsir"), eager to get out from under, explore the country, and learn more about herself in the process.
The novel opens in 1994 when Theo, before her 30th birthday, sits on a hardwood floor in an empty San Francisco apartment. She's on the brink of a life-altering relocation to New York City, a place "where at the very least a person could purchase a slice of pizza any hour of the day." Her Bay Area life has been clogged with the kind of things that are fun at first but tend to hang around and overstay their welcome (i.e., booze, cigarettes, gambling), so it's time to drive across the country in a packed car with just her scarred, formerly-abused pitbull rescue dog Cary Grant for company.
Knowing a job is a top priority, Theo temporarily settles in Yonkers for several months, and then it's onto the big city, and the draw of winning the motherlode in nearby Atlantic City. But through it all, Theo's penchants for drinking and gambling are never more than a city block behind her. The reality of being broke in a big city, living in a roach-infested apartment, of relying on addictive vices to stay happy, and the realization that dreaming big may be the Big Joke everyone else says it is, are themes interwoven into Liebegott's finely textured and often gritty narrative.
By the time Theo finds herself fully ensconced in the drama and the allure of East Coast life, Liebegott has shown an ability to draw a reader in. Theo is a marvel of confusion, discovery, hope and deflated glee; a likeable, quick-witted girl who seems haunted by her vices, yet who always angles for something bigger, better, and brighter, even to the point when there's nothing left but desperate strippers and filthy carpeting.
There is a lot to relate to in Liebegott's cleverly addictive novel. Readers will wonder what happens next to Theo and Cary Grant. Will the love she finds be everlasting, or will her addictions get the best of her? Theo is an engaging character, and she will linger in the imagination long after Cha-Ching! 's final page has been turned.