City Lights/Sister Spit, 248 pages, paperback, $15.95
Get the proverbial hooks into a reader early on in a story and you’ll get them to keep reading even if the subject matter makes them uncomfortable. If you manage to make them care about your characters, they will stand by them regardless of how flawed they might be. Ali Liebegott does both things very well in Cha-Ching!, her new novel from City Lights/Sister Spit. The book is full of dreadful things like being broke, tooth pain, addiction, and discrimination. However, the author’s superb prose and brutal honesty make reading the novel a pleasure.
Theo is a “sirmamsir,” which is the word she uses to replace butch. She’s living in San Francisco and on the verge of two things: turning 30 and moving to New York City. When she finally hits the road, she does so with her new and unplanned mascot, a pitbull with a scar-lined face that she names Cary Grant. The plan is to start a new life, but Theo has a few problems that follow her wherever she goes: drinking, occasional drug use, and gambling. Before making it to the Big Apple, she gets stranded in Yonkers and that’s where the adventure begins. From there, Theo will make her way to New York City, work at a few jobs, win some money and lose a lot of it in kitschy, smelly casinos, try to stop drinking, drown mice, become Cary Grant’s best friend, and find love. Through it all, she will learn what it means to be young, broke, alone, and addicted in a big, strange city.
The book starts and you quickly realize Theo is smart and likable. Then some thugs throw Cary Grant from a roof and Theo rescues her. That’s when she steals your heart, and keeps it for the rest of the narrative. As the story progresses, a plethora of flaws come to the surface, but they only make Theo a troubled, charming, too-real character. By making us care about Theo, Liebegott ensures that we stay glued to the pages whether she’s writing about the drama of renting an apartment in New York, the minutiae of working at a convenience store, or the pitfalls of trying to get rich playing roulette. That bond is what makes the story stick to your ribs even days after you’re done with the book.
Besides the rich, multidimensional characters, Cha-Ching! is packed with a sad beauty that fiction rarely achieves. In fact the combination of lovely and ghastly reminded me of a wonderful line by author Nik Korpon that really applies to this novel: “Delicate, but hoarse, like a nightingale with emphysema.” There is a simple poetry to every line that makes even the horrible passages a little less horrific, and there is plenty of horror here. Sure, there is the beauty of the rescued dog, strong friendships developing, and a bit of romance, but the story is also packed with emotional grittiness and raw darkness. How dark? Try frustrated strippers snorting coke and wishing for better breasts, light switches that don’t work because they’re stuffed with dead cockroaches, a dog thrown from a roof, and Theo fisting his love interest on a filthy hotel carpet while she’s flying on Xanax and booze.
Cha-Ching! is about being young, looking for love, trying to build a future, losing everything a few times, and praying for luck in Atlantic City. It’s also a witty, engaging read that deserves to be called a must-read.
Gabino Iglesias is writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.