Like an updated version of Thelma & Louise, New York University MFA graduate Kayla Rae Whitaker's first novel, The Animators, is a girlfriends story of two young women who meet in an upstate New York preppy college visual arts program. They combine their contrasting personalities and drawing skills to create critically acclaimed full-length animated movies. A careful, self-aware product of a borderline white-trash Kentucky small town, narrator Sharon Kisses is the first of three siblings ("who had all the fish sticks and Nintendo we needed") to escape her hillbilly hollow and leverage her talent into the edgy Bushwick creative arts scene. Her collaborator, Mel Vaughn, is a funky, frequently alcohol-fueled lesbian party girl from a busted family in central Florida. As Sharon describes them, "Mel with her mouth open, hair bleached and cowlicked all to hell, me a sad-sacked, big-tittied Haggis McBaggis with unspeakable split ends." Ten years out of college, Mel and Sharon snag a prestigious grant for a cartoon film based on Mel's mother's life of petty crime, prostitution and prison. Hipster Brooklyn "creatives" help them celebrate at a warehouse blowout: "Mel is not the only one who knows how to dance with the monkey.... We're mostly artists here, animators and editors and ink-and-color guys." Theirs is an uneasy collaboration that surprisingly works. Sharon recognizes that "Mel is our fire-starter, the flint against stone... I am our finisher... designing the checklist needed to complete the day."
However, in Whitaker's sure hands, what begins as a story of young artists making it in New York City literally goes south when Mel's mother dies in a prison fight. Mel and Sharon go to Florida ("Nascar and poor dentistry and pythons swallowing Pomeranians... those pink grubby outdoor motel room entrances favored by serial killers and speed freaks") to identify the body. When Sharon suffers a serious stroke there and spends six weeks in a hospital rehabbing, Mel enters the unfamiliar role of sober caregiver and cheerleader. Once back on her feet, Sharon drags Mel along to Kentucky to visit her family and confront a past she thought she had left far behind--a troubling one that becomes the narrative for their next movie, and with it another round of praise, celebration and excess leading to another tragedy. The Animators is not just a buddy road trip story. It's a sensitive portrait of a close but ambivalent friendship, and the process and power of creating art. When Mel and Sharon are deep into a project, the work takes over: "We trim, weed, liposuction, force the thing onto a treadmill to run its belly off, knowing we'll have to do it all again." Whitaker takes us behind the onionskin drawings and slick celluloid, behind the Brooklyn booze and artsy raves, behind the Kentucky white trash and cheap cigarettes to the personal angst and longing that finds some relief in friendship, love and art. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Shelf Talker: Whitaker's first novel blends hipster Brooklyn, rural east Kentucky and redneck central Florida into a beguiling story of friendship, artistic collaboration and the sources of creativity.