February 07, 2017

A Jim Crow-era odyssey

By Laird Hunt
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All novelists are conjurers, ventriloquists and magicians, but Laird Hunt may be more so than most. In his last three novels, Hunt has inhabited the distinct voices of particular women so thoroughly and so comfortably that it’s possible, after you’ve turned the last page, to forget that the person you’ve just left behind was invented. His people follow you, like it or not.

Another remarkable thing about his novels is that, even though none of them could’ve been written by anyone other than Laird Hunt, no two sound the same. Some of his earlier books, like The Exquisite and Ray of the Star, are dreamy, trippy, ultramodern works of lyrical beauty and mystery, in which alert readers might detect an admiration for Paul Auster—but there’s also Indiana, Indiana, a simple, quiet tale narrated by an old man reflecting on an early love. As different as they are, his books share a richness of language and a vividness of imagery that can seriously blow the mind. Some of his characters speak coyly, some are forthright; many are first one and then the other, to devastating effect.

Hunt’s newest, The Evening Road, is the third in a loosely related trio of novels centering on strong female protagonists at different periods in American history. Neverhome (2014) introduces readers to Ash, aka Constance, a steely young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the Civil War. In Kind One (2012), most of the story is told by the tough-minded but not especially sympathetic wife of a slave owner in Kentucky; the second part of the story belongs to one of the young black women she used to torment.

The Evening Road follows a similar structure: It opens with Mrs Ottie Lee Henshaw, a spirited young white woman whose boss likes to drive her around and paw at her ineffectively. It's a summer night in 1930, and there’s news of a lynching in a nearby town called Marvel. Ottie Lee’s boss decides they’ll go see it. The lynching, which darkens the edges of the (somehow) often funny narrative, is based on a famous event that happened near where Hunt grew up in Indiana. (It provoked the poem and song “Strange Fruit.”) The second section is narrated by Calla Destry, a street-smart young black woman who is desperate to leave town, but not before having a frank conversation with her beau, a slippery, fast-talking political type.

It’s a road novel that starts from opposite ends of the same road. The characters travel the same miles, intercepting each other yet remaining always in their separate worlds. The harm caused by that separation is one of Hunt’s recurring subjects.

Though the three linked novels aren’t exactly a trilogy, they seem to haunt each other. Certain places and images turn up in all three, creating a sense of a complete world (as well as goosebumps). There’s no need to read them in any specific order, but if you read one, you’ll want to find the rest.

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The Evening Road

The Evening Road

By Laird Hunt
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316391283

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