Cousin It

If cable networks ever exhaust their inventories of ’50s sitcoms, they might want to order up some episodes for a new Golden Age series based on Lynn Caraganis’ funny, affectionate, almost surreally giddy second novel. Consider the plot: It’s 1958 and Vickie Fowler, a 17-year-old orphan with pixie bangs (the kind of girl who could be ”really attractive” if she ”took a lot of time with grooming”) is invited by her rich Cousin Itzel to spend the summer at Carriage Acres, a subdivision in the suburb of Moraga, Calif.

Cousin It’s place is a ”huge, modern ranch-style, made of redwood and multicolored stone, and sitting in a yard of bare sand.” With picture windows, aqua-and-cream linoleum floors, blood-red vases, and push-button fiberglass drapes (so cool!), it’s Vickie’s ”dream house,” and hers to use exclusively, since Cousin It doesn’t live there himself-he just bought the property to establish residency, intending eventually to become mayor so he can ”develop the H-E-L-L” out of Moraga.

Stranded in paradise, Vickie plays her favorite song (”Twenty-six Miles,” by the Four Preps) over and over while grappling with Life’s Big Questions: Why isn’t she more popular, will she ever learn to dress with flair, and when oh when will that perfect boy whisk her away to the Dairy Queen in a big white convertible?

But what’s a sitcom without foils, and for The Vickie Fowler Show, Caraganis has created a supporting cast of daffy neighbors and friends — the indispensable ”gang.” There’s Esther Pizzouli, the cranky, insulting president of Rose-Oleum Manufacturing, maker of ”body preparations” for ”overweight” women, and Esther’s weasly beatnik son, Eugene, who talks nonstop about the human sex urge. Then there’s Lily Georgie, a ”legend” in town since she’s ”the only Negro”; Sylvia Newman, a divorcee and aspiring sculptress given to wearing black velvet slacks; and Don de Carlo, the ”entertainer” who’s forever auditioning (unsuccessfully) for Jack Paar. There is also Sylvia’s wayward daughter, Joyce (everyone swears she looks just like Anna Maria Alberghetti!); Dennis Cornacchione, Vickie’s former boyfriend (”I want to wash the taste of that guy right out of my mouth with some root beer!”); and Eric Cates, absolutely the cutest boy in the entire world. At Vickie’s house, gosh, you just never know who’s going to drop by next to throw a temper tantrum or steal a kiss, or to have a slice of her magically self-replenishing chocolate layer cake. /p>

Cousin It, like the mid-century backyard-barbecue culture that it so amiably spoofs, is remarkable for the absence of any real pain or change. Zany episodes abound, but there’s no story progression. How can there be? There’s no plot. Instead, Caraganis gives us a richly ironic farce set during one long and blue-skied summer when the atom was still our friend, cigarettes were sexy, and conformity was a national virtue.

Cousin It
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