‘It is a dark, dark seven a.m. on Christmas Eve Eve’ in Philadelphia. As it snows outside, Madeline Altimari practises shimmying in the mirror and grades herself on her performance. She ‘is two days away from being ten’. Her mother, recently dead from cancer, was a dancer and singer; Madeline also wants to be a singer but has been scuppered at school by an event at last year’s Winter Assembly which has led to her unofficial ban from ever singing in church or assembly again. However, Claire Kelly, ‘Student of the Week, Month and Year’, is struck by a bicyclist at 7.10am and it looks as though Madeline will finally get to sing.
Madeline’s teacher, Sarina Greene, is out buying caramel so her class can make caramel apples that afternoon. While she’s purchasing the caramel, she’s invited to dinner by an old school friend, a dinner at which her high school boy friend will be present; her ex-husband telephones, and so does her grade partner to inform her of the situation with Claire Kelly. By 7.30am, it already looks as though it’s going to be a bit of a day.
The third key character is Jack Francis Lorca, owner of the jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas. His day begins at 9am with a visit from the police.
The cop pulls a notebook from his blazer pocket. “I’m afraid we’ve gotten several calls about your club. Over capacity, use of pyrotechnics, excessive smoke…Consistent refusal to abide by the city’s law of no smoking inside the premises…Consistent refusal to stop serving alcohol at two A.M. I stopped in last night around three and saw fifty or so people cheering on a drummer dousing his drum set in lighter fluid.’
Lorca’s served a fine he can’t afford to pay. As he tries to find ways to get the money together, sort out his relationship with his son and come to terms with his partner leaving him, Madeline’s having a spectacularly bad day of her own.
Just as Madeline’s about to sing, Claire Kelly arrives on crutches and takes over. By 11.10, Madeline’s being sent home by the Principal after the nurse has discovered nits in her hair. Sarina arrives to give her a caramel apple but Denny Pennypack, hall monitor, karate-chops it out of her hand.
“She threw her apple against the wall!” Denny exclaims. “The lice must be making her crazy!”
Madeline balls up her fists. “This is fucking bullshit!” She glares at Principal Randles. “This turd did that on purpose, are you blind?”
The principal’s mouth falls open. Madeline is still going. Bitch rag, she tells her. Colossal prick munch.
“Expelled,” Principal Randles chokes.
Denny snorts with pleasure. Madeline bridges the distance between them in two steps. She remembers to bring her arm back like a slingshot and to keep her thumb out of the fist she plants on Denny’s mug. Denny’s nose explodes and releases admirable waves of blood.
Madeline’s a fantastic character. Streetwise but vulnerable, she’s been left well cared for by her mother’s friends – she knows where to go for food and a haircut – but while her father lies in bed, depressed, she’s working towards her dream and taking advantage of any opportunities that arise.
2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas takes place in 24 hours but it’s structure’s more complex than it sounds, moving principally between the three main characters but also weaving in moments – sometimes fleeting, sometimes a little longer – where these three characters’ days overlap with someone else who is important to their story, in however small a way.
The title of the novel initially made me think that this would be a whimsical book, which in one sense I suppose it is, but it’s also so much more than that. It considers relationships – the legacy left by a dead mother for her young daughter; a divorcee and her childhood sweetheart; a father and his teenage son – and what people will sacrifice to fulfil their dreams. As I tweeted when I finished reading it, 2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas is ‘bloody marvellous’.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.