Run Catch Kiss

San Jose Mercury News

July 4, 1999

Popular Fiction by Mark Johnson

“Navel-gazing novel: ‘Female Trouble’ columnist writes what she knows about sex and a single woman”

If you need evidence that the world is changing, the career of Amy Sohn should suffice. Sohn if famous for the weekly “Female Trouble” column in the throwaway tabloid New York Press, in which she chronicles the more or less true-life adventures of herself, a single woman on the make for great sex, a boyfriend and the meaning of life. Her workaday world is populated by neurotics, sex addicts and the relentlessly self-inventive, which makes, judgment aside, entertaining and stupendously trashy reading. Run Catch Kiss (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $23) is Sohn’s first novel, an attempt both to make use of her fame and to make some sense of it. She will surely succeed in the former, as even her detractors view her with horrified fascination. If your expectations aren’t too high, you may conclude that she has succeeded in the latter as well.

Sohn’s protagonist, Ariel Steiner, is a graduate of Brown University, where her four years apparently were spent learning to intellectualize about getting laid. She arrives in Manhattan with dreams of succeeding as an actress (she is quickly disillusioned) and finding a boyfriend. Her technique for finding true love is to sleep with as many strangers as possible in hope that one will stick. The running joke is that for all her efforts and energetic fantasies, Ariel rarely gets any sex at all – and when she does, it disappoints.

On a whim, she submits and erotic recollection to the tabloid City Week. The piece runs; there is a wave of attention; and Ariel is hired to write a weekly column called “Run Catch Kiss” about, as her boss envisions it, “the weekly struggles of a single girl in the city. A ‘Perils of Pauline’ from a slacker slut perspective.” It is supposed to be outrageous. It’s also supposed to be true, although the boss gives her a long leash: “any record of an actual event is going to contain some element of distortion.” Since Ariel isn’t getting any, the “element of distortion’ comes to include increasingly bold fabrications. Her breezily smutty column becomes the talk of the town, but her life is in ruins. She manipulates her partners with her column in mind, but each “conquest” ends drearily. On a radio show, she brags about made-up childhood sex experiences and bisexual affairs. She thinks that even her heart can be invented:

I envied [my partners]. All they cared about was their work and themselves. They didn’t need relationships to make them happy. They were never looking for anything long-term, so they never got hurt. I wanted to learn to be that recklessly self-important, to have such incredibly drive and direction that relationships were unwanted diversions. I wanted to be an isolationist commitmentphobe. A jaded jade. I wanted to be a guy.

Her crisis comes when a relationship with a quirky novelist turns serious. Ariel’s column depends on her promiscuity; if she has a boyfriend, she loses her job. Her response is more lies, on the one hand to keep the hot coy coming and on the other to make Adam jealous, to force him to love her. Adam, meanwhile, weaves his own web of lies.

The hollow core of these characters is evident when Ariel and Adam make love one night: Each later professes to have been thinking about someone else during the act, and both are lying to some extent. It’s giving away nothing to say that Ariel eventually comes to disaster – she says as much in the opening paragraph. What self-knowledge she harvests is contained in an epigraph from Nathanael West’s “miss Lonelyhearts”: “With the first few words Miss Lonelyhearts had known that he would be ridiculous. By avoiding God, he had failed to tap the force in his heart and had merely written a column for his paper.”

West says it better than Sohn, and she can’t write about anything remotely as substantial as God or a god. But there’s a trace of a heartbeat here, and “Run Catch Kiss’ is exactly as entertaining as one would expect.