Don't Kiss Me: Stories
“God willing, the affectations will pass, unveiling a talent less fettered by ‘style.’”
Sometimes the words on the back cover of a book can tell us oh so much:
“With broken language, deep vernacular, unexpectedly fierce empathy, and a pace that’ll break your granny’s neck, Lindsay Hunter lures, cajoles, and wrenches readers into the wild world of Don’t Kiss Me.”
And while I am quite sure that the flack who penned this glowed with pride over the promised damage to granny’s poor old nape, the truth reflected here is a simple one: What Ms. Hunter lacks in verbal grace and/or acuity, she more than makes up for with tricks, tics, and a pacing so breakneck that it seems the result of unmedicated ADHD.
Within the panoply of short stories contained in the pages of Don’t Kiss Me, Ms. Hunter seems disinterested in such things as descriptions, settings, narratives, story arcs, even grammatical clues like quotation marks and commas. In their place are stories written all in caps, stories with the repetitive use of the word “like,” stories written as one long, long (unendurable) paragraph, stories that the reader hesitates to call stories, in that they are, in truth, outlines of stories, shards of stories that have been left as undeveloped, fetal things, as if the young author had grown bored of the task of writing long before actually finishing.
Oddly, these attempts at “new” fiction also feel dated, like the rooms that the decorators on HGTV decided a few years ago had to all be painted lavender—not because lavender was a particularly winning color, one that showed well against the tones of human skin, but because it was, for that moment, a fad.
In the same way, the stories collected here, each reading as the most juvenile of juvenilia, seem mired in a time a few years ago, or a few weeks or months ago, in some time that has now passed, when an exploration of new methods of getting to fiction, of presenting literature to the literary was enough. When it was left to the reader to discover if someone was speaking, and, if so who, and where they were and what they wanted and why:
“I waved to the boy and under the sickly yellow of his porch light I watched him mouth Stupid Bitch at me, real slow, and then he reached into his pail and pulled out a fistful of something goopy and flung it at the car. I said, Mud, Hardy, that shitty child just threw mud at us, and then they was everywhere, more shitty children, all with mud, all chanting, Stupid Bitch, Stupid Bitch. I cracked the window and screamed, The name’s Nancy, you shithead children, and then I could smell it, it wasn’t mud but the children’s own soupy excrement, some of it was green and nearly neon and I wondered was it Kool-Aid that done it or some kind of illness, and was that whole intact kidney bean sliding down the windshield, this is the way my mind works due to all the detectiving, I can’t help it nor do I try to, and anyway, Hardy pushed on the gas and we flew out of there.”
It is as if the stories are floating in space and time, without connection to life. Characters appear and disappear without context, without ties to the environment or to each other, all speaking the same patois, all issuing the same invectives, over and over again:
“Deidre hands in the sink. Deidre sweaty hair at her neck. Deidre clap, smeared red of a mosquito. Deidre in her yellow robe, feet bottoms black as coal. Deidre Ain’t you going to let me in? Deidre mmm. Deidre ding, Deidre dong, Deidre How’s a girl supposed to breathe in heat like this? Soapy water, smell of soap. Thread of dirt, black black smell.”
Or this, from the title story, “Don’t Kiss Me:”
“IT DISGUSTS ME TO SEE A GROWN WOMAN EAT A SALAD BUT I AM DEDICATED, I FORGIVE THIS WOMAN EACH TIME THOUGH I KNOW THE FLECKS OF LETTACE ARE SLOWLY DISINTEGRATING HER ESOPHAGUS
“YOU CAN’T SAVE EVERYONE”
Reading along, it is as if the author were throwing the stories (“Hmmm, I haven’t tried all caps yet . . .”), like various degrees of cooked pasta, at the wall to see if any of them will stick.
Admittedly, some things are a bit more successful. Like this, from the story “Nixon in Retirement,” which presents itself as the inner monologue of the aged ex-president:
“I had an egg for breakfast. I put too much salt on it so Pat would notice and yell at me. She didn’t. Sipped her coffee like it was tea. Smiled like the machine in her mouth was winding down. A bit of hair had come loose from its setting. Like she was molting. I was grateful to see her flawed, I can’t tell you exactly why. That egg was like eating a jellyfish coated in sand. I endured.”
The story reveals a lack of understanding of the man that really existed and has reduced Nixon the man to Nixon the hand puppet. But still. The words clinging to the page do reveal a slick, mean humor and do a story tell.
Words meet the eye with a drumbeat rhythm and images repeat: pale, fat stomachs, the filthy bottoms of feet (the best of these: “his foot as black with dirt as if it had been drawn there with charcoal”) Circle K stores, pubic hair. The sameness of the language and of the characters (in one story it is not until the narrator is actually inserting his penis into someone that the reader becomes aware that the author has switched genders for her central character this time out, so vague and unshaped is her point of view) has the impact of making these individual rather brief slices of fiction seem like one long, drab run-on sentence.
And the devices used only serve to undermine the author in her work and disguise the true talent hidden beneath.
Like this, like the story called “Like:”
“We are at, like, a dance. We are like wearing these new tops. We put lipstick all around our mouths. We feel jealous of each other’s mouth, but like that isn’t cool so we keep it to ourselves. We don’t want to dance with anything chubby because it’s like dancing with our stepdads, or dancing with some like weird baby grizzly boy. We are like yuck. We want to dance with anything that plays football or like golf. Anything that like might play the savior in a movie or a TV show. Or like the killer. We wouldn’t mind being, like, bladed.”
The reader reads this long paragraph and thinks of Moon Unit Zappa, all those years ago.
But there is, contained within this short clip something undeniable. The idea of the desired boy being the one who plays the hero. Or the killer. The idea of the interchangeability of the two.
Lindsay Hunter still is wrestling with the proper proportion of style and substance. And she has yet to master her own voice and therefore depends upon some rather tired tricks in the place of emotional truth—each story, for instance, wears a sudden twist ending, one that suddenly shows the sensitive core of the heretofore crude and angry narrator like a tiny decorative hat or a black beret that seems as forced and out of place.
God willing, the affectations will pass, unveiling a talent less fettered by “style.” And the brief glimpses of authorial insight that can be found in the stories contained in Don’t Kiss Me will become full vistas to behold, to see, taste, smell, and learn from—in future volumes.