Featherproof Books: Chicago, IL, 2010. 340 pages. $14.95.
In Daddy’s, Lindsay Hunter’s debut collection of microfiction, there is a story about a woman who uses her dog’s shock collar to achieve sexual pleasure so intense it borders on enlightenment. There is an overweight girl who allows her anorexic friend to watch her binge on junk food and then suck the remnants from her fingers. There is kinky sex—and profound emptiness. The book is designed to look like a tiny tacklebox, and it is filled with stories like hooks: girls who are possessed by men, with graves, with hope. Hunter doesn’t waste words making her reader feel safe—the brevity of the form allows her to cut straight to the ugly, real moments in her characters’ lives and then get off the page before the reader knows what hit him.
In the story “Love Song,” a girl—nameless, like many of the female narrators in the book—gets advice from her father’s girlfriend on her sixteenth birthday: “Let me ask you, you a tough bitch yet? . . . When I didn’t answer she said You work on that. Work on getting mean, hear?” But she doesn’t get mean, despite her messy life. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself, even when her drunken father tells her, “Daddy’s just all fucked up tonight and empty as a pocket.” Part of what makes this collection extraordinary is the ways in which the characters resist the meanness that permeates their worlds. Hunter’s characters remain fierce in the face of their failures.
Several of the stories in Hunter’s collection were first published online, evidence that Hunter takes bold risks that go beyond those usually found in glossy magazines. The stories, many set in an unromanticized South, explore the vulgar, grotesque realities of sex and bad decisions. The stories in this collection are populated by characters who are trapped, trying to survive bad situations. They resonate with an honesty so intense it’s almost frightening. In “Unpreparing,” a pregnant woman is hospitalized by a car accident caused by her boyfriend. When he returns to her room, she confesses: “I am so disappointed to see him unharmed that I start crying.” In another story, a woman wakes from a one-night stand to a man who won’t leave her house. Her response, “You feel disgusted but inflamed,” could apply to many of the female characters in the book—people who frequently use sex as a substitute for something else. But like Mary Gaitskill, Hunter avoids using sex simply to shock. She balances the sex in her stories with loneliness, juxtaposing shame and arousal. In “Finding There,” as a man who is running from his family is straddled by a woman in a hotel room, he thinks “ . . . of his middle daughter holding something up, saying Can you open it?”
The greatest pleasure of Daddy’s comes in the language—gorgeous sentences that rattle around in the reader’s brain long after each story has ended. In “My Brother,” the narrator says of her imprisoned brother: “My brother digs a hole and buries most of my dad in it.” Hunter’s sentences are twisted, contorted by the sadness that lurks just beneath the surface. Part of the reason these stories, and microfiction in general, have so much impact on the reader is that there’s no room for anything but truth and beauty. Each word is loaded. Every sentence is a weapon.
At the end of “Love Song,” Hunter’s birthday girl has left her drunken, con-man father. She is waiting for a bus. When it finally arrives, she sees it as “some kind of miracle box of light trundling toward me with an offering of strangers and a lungful of air conditioning and a bell I could ring any time I wanted to, to make it stop, but I guess that’s not how no tough bitch would talk.” The characters in Daddy’s may be trapped or empty or running or sick—they may have seen their babies die, or they may be stuck out in the desert with the wild dogs. But they’re not defeated. Hunter and her characters persist, making us uncomfortable the way great fiction should.