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Ali Liebegott’s novel Cha-Ching! is like a message in a bottle, a moment of desperation, survival and dreams. The novel, released by the new Sister Spit imprint (headed by Michelle Tea) of City Light Books offers readers a snapshot into the life of Theo, a dyke who when we first meet her is placing the last of her belongings in the free box of her San Francisco apartment building, preparing to get out of town, when she watches a group of teenagers throw a pit bull off the roof of a neighboring building. She rushes to a nearby vet with the dog, whose fall was cushioned by a food cart awning, and gains a best friend. Theo names her new dog Cary Grant and gains a copilot for the journey to start a new life in NYC.
Cha-Ching! is a story of wandering. It’s filled with an electric sense of urgency, as the characters battle circumstances and decisions struggling to get through the day.We never really learn where Theo comes from, or what keeps her running; the same is true for all the characters she befriends in New York. Theo’s world is one of conflict and chaos, where there are no happy endings, but sometimes loving accomplices. When Theo and Cary Grant arrive in New York having survived on a diet of truck stop hot dogs, Theo calls Sammy, a dyke she’d met years before in jail, after a protest. Sammy remembers Theo and quickly becomes her Brooklyn roommate in an apartment overrun with roaches, mice, and the dream of making it big—which in Theo’s world includes the luxury of a package of fresh new socks. This is the way of youth and queerness, and the communities we build. One of the subplots that most resonates for me is the exquisite way Liebegott pulls you into the instability and vulnerability of being young and queer and without a safety net, and the ways in which young adult relationships are filled with intensity.
Theo’s dreams never come true, she never is rich enough, or stable enough, but she does Cha-Ching! fall in love, meeting Marisol, a librarian with a scared history she’s reluctant to reveal. Theo meets Marisol at the library and manages to get her number, but soon Marisol’s life begins spiraling out of control in tandem with (though not as a result of) Theo’s. Marisol looses her job, and spends one night working in a strip-club before the one glass of wine becomes a bottle, becomes leaning over the bed and puking on her first actual date with Theo. For her part, Theo’s embarrassment about having gotten sober before moving to NYC leads her to start drinking again, first with Sammy, and then with Marisol. Theo also finds herself downing more and more of the little pills Marisol became dependent upon after her one night dancing.
Cha-Ching! captures brilliantly chaos and uncertainty that comes when one is perhaps a little too old to be a youth, but hasn’t figured out how to be an adult either. This is a story whose greatest strength is the way it unflinching demands that readers sit with their own discomfort with everything from of teeth get extracted at a free health clinic, to suicide dreams gone awry (Marisol realizes the gun she’s fantasized killing herself with is only a stage prop). Liebegott is an exquisite storyteller bringing us into Theo’s world without casting judgment, reminding us that life is a gamble, and everything: home, sobriety, success, love ultimately hangs in the balance. This is a story about margins and uncertainties, of fisting a girl you barely know on dirty hotel carpet, and losing the last of your cash on the alcohol you quit, and slot machines praying to get lucky again, and promising if you do, not to blow it this time.
By Ali Liebegott
City Lights/Sister Spit
Paperback, 9780872865709, 252 pp.