Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2010), and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, forthcoming 2010). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Writing in an Internet journal—one wherein, last month, I considered the possibilities of new literature for the still-new medium, rich with potential, of the Internet—it is nice to have an opportunity to fervently defend the book as artifact, a physical thing with a weight and a smell and a presence—both material and beyond material, an aura—in a given room. In an age of e-books and digital readers, Lindsay Hunter’s debut story collection, Daddy’s, exemplifies one strong future for print literature, combining as it does the most sparklingly polished aspects of performance with the most creative and enticing aspects of book-as-object. There is a fetishistic appreciation for the possibilities of print in this beautifully produced little collection from the Chicago press featherproof. The book looks, from the outside, like a miniature tackle box and opens to reveal exquisite short pieces presented in sections with moody monochrome photographs embedded alongside the text.
Let me be clear: You should buy a copy of Daddy’s immediately and spend some time in its world. Also, should you ever find yourself in Chicago on the second Tuesday of the month, get to the friendly confines of the Innertown Pub and experience Quickies!, the reading series co-founded by Hunter and Mary Hamilton. As disclosure, I know Ms. Hunter through Quickies!, at which I’ve read several times. I can say that personally she seems authentically gracious, humble—a good person. Yet while, as a critic, I can treat this text with objective detachment from my experience of the author as a person, I found it impossible to read certain stories in this book without re-encountering my experiences of the author as performer.
“I wrote my sister this note about all the things I hate,” one narrator announces. “Gorgons, it said. And how people got nutville any time the moon throws a shape. Nasty ass Nilla Wafers. The smell of crotch, which only seems to come wafting out from my sister’s room.” The mastery of language here, the warped vernacular, along the scatological humor and, perhaps above all, a kind of innocence half-masked by precocity and rage—these are the hallmarks of Hunter’s art. And this art has surely been sharpened by the demands of performance; the inessential has been excised, the idiosyncrasies of voice and the music of phrasing have been heightened. There is also an expert sense of timing, comic or otherwise, and of tone. “The only other customer in the restaurant got up,” one story says, “stomping his feet like his legs had been asleep,” which phrase says more about the moment than many writers could convey with a full half page. In another story, this observation of presence in the midst of emptiness is rendered in the voice of a mother who can say, of one lost child, “I knew Letitia was dead inside me for days before she was born, but I let her stay inside. That was one of the happiest times in my life, me and the baby sharing a death.”
The characters in Daddy’s do not lead enviable lives. In short, they have problems, but they live amidst such mental and material clutter that even the simplest problem becomes extravagantly elaborate. Even seemingly empty space reads like a microcosm of decay, desire, and ruin. “Tiny shrines of catshit and dryer lint and wrappers for condoms candy beer-bottles toilet paper lipstick-tubes and various electronics,” cover one section of one surface in this book. The eerie accompanying photographs likewise collect physical detritus and, by isolating individual pieces—the grub-like melted cigarette lighter, for instance—offer these things up in further “tiny shrines,” banality acquiring an ambiguous significance. Things are everywhere here, and they can, quick as a drop, acquire too much meaning. Consider the woman who says, of her lover’s snacking, “The bit of M&M is gone from his lip and I wonder if it’s somewhere in my pubic hair.” Or the man, who, remembering his wife, thinks how she “often had lipstick in her teeth, how it made her look like she’d just bitten into something alive, something that bled.” Objects creep in and define our troubles just as objects offer us our only, brief, escapes:
In the bathroom he stared at himself in the mirror. He imagined that his body was an elaborate empty coffin. Here lies Nothing. Here lies No One. He could smell the bagel burning in the toaster, heard his girlfriend hiss Shit. He masturbated with her mint green loofah and appletini body wash, crouching over the toilet so that when he came there’d be nothing to clean up, no trace of anything ever happening.
Hunter’s world is riddled with invisible fences and full of casual, passing considerations of the possibility of suicide. People innovate, sexually, in preposterous and utterly believable, heartbreaking ways. But people also love, strangely enough, whether this love is between a mother and her freak baby smearing fistfuls of feces into the sheets or between, as it often is, siblings, a relationship Hunter treats as always at once complexly tangled yet also simple and dependable as a blade.
I haven’t yet mentioned that the book is dedicated to the Florida town where Hunter grew up, and dedicated, to be more precise, to the place in those precise years. As much as there is a savor of southern gothic in these tales, there is an equal pulse of nostalgia just beneath the surface. People get abused in these stories, taken advantage of, hospitalized. People seem to give up, or remain trapped in circumstances, or relish memories of temporarily shared death. Yet the book itself is characterized by a buoyancy, a hope, even in the face of repeated narrative disappointments. This hope is in the writing, carried by the rhythm and at times tremendous strength of it, by the singularity of the images and the voices. Thus, while reader won’t like want to switch lives with any of the sad denizens of Daddy’s, they will return again and again to scenes here, because in Hunter’s hands even scenes of failure convey a crackle of possibility, and what, to a given character, may well be the end of the line, becomes, for the reader, an entrance into awe and wonder.
He kept driving. Veered toward the Gulf and rented a room a block from the beach. Kept his shoes on as he waded into the water for fear of jellyfish. It felt natural to be pulled by the tide, to be tempted to let it take him, and then for the tide to finally let go and push the other way. He stood like that for some time, dipping in his fingertips at one point and tasting the salt. He saw a shark’s fin on the horizon and it wasn’t until later that he realized it was probably just a sailboat.