“Fame! I’m Gonna Live Forever!….Remember My Name! Fame!”—lyrics from the Oscar-winning song, “Fame” from the movie Fame (original recipe, of course), could be Liza Normal’s theme song. If she could grasp the gold ring of fame, her life would be perfect and everyone would love her.
Of course, the road to fame never runs smoothly and Cintra Wilson covers Liza’s haphazard quest to stardom her debut novel Colors Insulting to Nature, and it’s one hell of a roller coaster ride.
Like a lot of fame-hungry youngsters, Liza’s talent as a performer can best be called “negligible.” She often wears inappropriate clothing that rival Jodie Foster’s in “Taxi Driver.” And she’s saddled with a stage mother named Peppy who makes Mama Rose from “Gypsy” look low-key. Peppy is determined to make her children (Peppy has a brother named Ned) super stars. She believes one way she can do that is to enroll her offspring in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts.
But before she can do that, the Normal family moves to California (yep, a full continent away from New York City) where Peppy starts her very own dinner theater (which doesn’t serve dinner) called The Normal Family Dinner Theater. Not only are Liza and Ned roped into Peppy’s scheme so are some other more talented kids and their unsuspecting parents. Peppy’s idea of wholesome family fair is doing a bawdy and campy version of “The Sound of Music” featuring drag queen nuns. You can only imagine how well this rather unorthodox version of the stage and screen classic is received.
When not entertaining the masses with an alternative take on “The Sound of Music,” Liza makes her mark at her upper-crust high school. She trades insults with one of the A-listers and then later on trades in her virginity to him. Her classmates mark Liza as a slut and make fun of her glittery dreams of fame. Fortunately, Liza also befriends a kindred spirit in a girl named Lorna who gives her the support and encouragement Liza desperately needs. And yes, it did take me a while, but I do realize Liza and Lorna are the names of the late Judy Garland’s daughters, but I’m not sure if Ms. Wilson meant this.
But I digress…
Liza never does make it to the iconic “Fame” school, but she leaves high school with the same dogged dream to become a star. She entertains coffee shop customers with her unique renditions of Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam covers. She gets romantically involved with a washed-up former member of a boy band. And she even finds some success writing slash fiction featuring a fearless dominatrix named Venal de Minus.
Liza also faces other potholes; her shut-in, ski mask wearing brother finds some fame and success as a light-box artist, she gets involved with a drug dealer, she spends time battling drug addiction and a stint in rehab, she faces countless rejections, and Liza’s maniacal mother who goes from rampage to rampage.
As mentioned, Liza’s performing talent can best be described as “meh,” and she doesn’t exactly embrace her success as the creator of Venal de Minus. However, Liza does have one amazing skill—the skill to survive whatever obstacle is thrown in her way. She is scrappy and indestructible. And despite making some rather unfortunate decisions, she is fully human and very sympathetic. I found myself rooting for Liza time and time again even when she was in the gutter (especially when she was in the gutter). Liza is a survivor with a capital S! And I don’t mean a survivor in the weepy, “remember your spirit” Oprah-esque kind of way. I mean in the Gloria Gaynor anthem, “I Will Survive” sung by the most fierce drag queens on the planet.
Wilson is a fabulous writer, mercilessly skewering our obsession with celebrities and fame while also giving Liza an interesting story. I also enjoyed her creative asides to readers that reminded me of the talking heads seen in everything from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to the TV show “House of Cards.”
Wilson is also well-versed in the pop culture that shaped Generation X (the book takes place from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s). As a card-carrying member of said generation I got misty-eyed over references to not only the 1980 version of “Fame” and Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam but also to such cinematic cheese as “Ice Castles” and “Breakin’.”
I must say the ending of Colors Insulting to Nature was a wee bit too pat, but I reminded myself that it was one hell of a roller coaster ride, with amazing twists and turns, heart pounding ascents and tummy turning descents. Colors Insulting to Nature is the literary rollercoaster that once it ends makes you want to shout, “Let’s ride this bad boy again!”