Hunt’s work sticks with the reader.
Let us begin with “The Yellow,” a somewhat standard entry in The Dark Dark, the extraordinary short story collection by Samantha Hunt. Its main character, Roy, is a boomerang child. Back home at forty-two, he’s eating his parents’ food (a raw onion and tomato sandwich when we meet him: “an angry sandwich”), driving their car to job interviews and sleeping in his old bedroom. Deeply aware that he is a disappointment, he paints his bedroom bright yellow in what he believes is a fury of self-improvement. At the end of his labors he emerges a new man.
“Yellow was everywhere. Yellow and calm. Fear and confusion had left. Possibility and sunshine became his friends.”
Thus empowered, Roy drives off into the night where he promptly runs over someone’s dog in a tony suburb. A sad sack, but an honorable sad sack, he scoops up the dog in his arms, feeling the heat slowly escaping its body. The dog is dead. It is one dead dog. And Roy decides he must carry it door-to-door until he finds the owner and can make recompense.
Susanne is cleaning when Roy appears at her door. Wife and mother of young children, she occasionally needs space to revisit her punkish, younger self. When the itch for loud music and cigarettes emerges, her husband takes the kids out for a few hours of movies and pizza. It is a pact that allows their marriage to function. The dog belongs to her. Its name is Curtains. There are tears when she sees Curtains’ fate. Roy consoles her. And in that moment of tender understanding they have…well, as the author describes it:
“Pleasure remained a far-off cousin to whatever exchange they were having.”
While the participants are silently considering how to extricate themselves during the aftermath of their sexual endeavor, Curtains licks Roy’s face. Curtains the dead dog has come back to life. He’s sweet and playful as ever, but still as dead as that dragon on “Game of Thrones.” Curtains is a benign zombie that must be dealt with posthaste because the husband and kids are on their way. Roy cannot believe what’s happening.
“It’s not about belief. It’s whether or not you’re going to let the magic ruin your life. People pretend the world is ordinary every day…Because they have to.”
This is a sort of statement of intent by Hunt. The space where the extraordinary sublimates the mundane is examined throughout the collection. Here it’s a zombie dog, but the stories include a woman who turns into a deer, floating teenage girls who are either aliens or a coven and a mentally ill woman who reads the drafts of her life in a stenographer’s notebook. They are often navigating their worlds in darkness or at night, a space when what is known becomes indistinct and the imagination imbues what cannot be seen with new meaning.
“The Yellow” contains most of the themes that interest Hunt. Capitalism and generational hording have broken Roy while Susanne feels shackled by her role as an upper middle class housewife. Her fury at this patriarchal confinement makes her kin to the narrator of “A Love Story,” the tale of another mother at odds with the expectations others have of her maternal duties.
“A Love Story” is the most acclaimed of the stories in the collection, but “The Yellow” is most favored by this reviewer. It is the lowest brow of the ten stories and readers will finish it with an immediate sense of understanding. It is funny, brutal and in the end the puzzle that is the story feels completed with perhaps a piece or two missing at the edges. In this way it may be considered a failure because Hunt is more concerned about raising questions about perceptions of reality than wrapping anything up neatly.
“I’d rather point out the abundance of mystery than pretend to solve it,” she said in an interview with The Rumpus, but her stories are not exercises in heavy-handed intellectual glory seeking. Hunt, visceral in her investigation, grounds her stories in the tactility of flesh, especially that of a woman’s body, which she writes as a chaotic machine, bestowing fertility on some while robbing it of others, hormonal, transformative and ultimately betraying. Hunt makes it a priority to center women’s bodies in all stages of age and effectiveness with an uncommon frankness meant to cause groans and empathy. Her explicitness and humor almost feel taboo, especially when turned to themes like motherhood and disingenuous expectations of quotidian perfection. She does so with such a mastery of craft, her prose made rhythmic by her meticulous revisions.
As a result, Hunt’s work sticks with the reader. Whether open ending or closed loop, these stories beg to be returned to. Like a great movie, there are details to be found in the background heretofore unnoticed. The Dark Dark is really one of the finest books of the year, written by an author of prodigious talent who is interrogating important questions about patriarchy, femininity and the nature of our fears. The result is a warning spoken through Norma in “The Story of of”: “Soon there will be nothing left that is unknowable, unlit, and mysterious. There will be no more of the dark dark,”
Too many magic forests are getting leveled for exurbs and strip malls. How insipid a species will we be when we think we can see everything?