Don’t Kiss Me, by Lindsay Hunter. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 192 pages. $14.00, paper.
Lindsay Hunter is an amazing practitioner of the short-short-fiction, and her new collection, Don’t Kiss Me, has some truly staggering moments. She can make you hurt more in a few pages than most authors can in a novel. She can make you laugh, and she can strike you dumb with her language.
The stories in Don’t Kiss Me focus on characters living somewhere between the suburbs and the trailer park. Characters who wouldn’t be exceptional individuals, except for the fact that Hunter makes every dumb or mean or tired person exceptional. She finds the poetry in the language of the stubbornly uneducated, and pathos in lives that a lesser writer would simply make pathetic.
The structure of her stories is just as impressive as their content. She takes the epiphanic model that Charles Baxter grappled with and evolves it in multiple directions. The epiphanies at the end of some of these stories are not, for the characters who voice them, realizations so much as confessions. They are a person or a group of people working up to saying how things are. For the reader these moments are an inversion of epiphany. Rather than a cathartic vision we are forced to confront something ugly expressed beautifully, to confront ambivalence and either accept it or pretend we live in a world that is not Hunter’s world.
Among Hunter’s many gifts is the ability to write teenagers who feel real and unromanticized, neither given abilities beyond their years nor discredited because of their age. But their words are still turned to poetry, and their lives crafted and displayed with masterful talent. On particular pair of stories stood out to me, “A Girl,” and, “Like.” In the first, the boys of a high school are giving collective voice as they try to explain why they neither know nor feel anything in particular about the disappearance of one of the girls in the school. In the latter, the girls of a high school explain how they subsume themselves, make themselves vessels for boys to fill, but how doing so makes them feel powerful.
It’s a tragic pairing, but unspeakably rich in Hunter’s hands. “Like” ends with the line:
But, like, it’s us, we lie on our backs to watch the sky pearl to star, we are skin to bite we are hair to flick we are swish we have the power, it’s us, we say what we want we say Come and we say Here and we say Burn and we say Like.
Hunter’s prose can be jaw dropping, and never feels self-indulgent, and if you aren’t going out to buy this book right now, you might be dead inside.
There are stories that don’t succeed quite as wildly as “Like,” certainly. “Our Man” is a detective story that plays with formatting, using two columns to tell each side of the story. The issue I take with the story isn’t the formatting, but the fact that the story feels as though Hunter had to draw it too thinly to fit it into the formatting. Where other of her stories effortlessly offer a great deal of revelation in a minimum of text, “Our Man,” was the only story where I felt that Hunter was having to make compromises for her word count. That said, I still laughed out loud in a public place while reading “Our Man.”
On a side note (and, yes, I know it’s old news now, and well-trodden territory, but my momma didn’t name me William Day Late And Dollar Short Kaufman for nothing), we’ve all read about (or have read) the VIDA report, and we’ve all been exposed to the uproar it’s caused. I know authors who struggle with having their writing labeled chick-lit or otherwise dismissed as somehow not real literature—whatever the fuck “real” means in that context—and you might, too. Lindsay Hunter exemplifies something about gender I think is important. Lindsay Hunter writes stories that only Lindsay Hunter could write, and they are amazing and powerful and worthwhile, regardless of which body parts she may or may not have. I’d very much like to have a conversation about the question of whether or not a man could have possibly written these stories or expressed Hunter’s insights (because I don’t think he could have), but this review is not the place to enter deeply into that discussion, and I’d probably just embarrass myself.
I will suffice it to say that if you have any interest in the short-short form, or in stories that are wildly good, you should feel obligated to read Don’t Kiss Me.
Will Kaufman does stuff, if you’re curious check out kaufmanwrites.com.