Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Cheeto Dust: Daddy's by Lindsay Hunter

In the early pages of Daddy's, Lindsay Hunter's brain-blistering collection of short stories from Featherproof Books, a restless wife who endures frequent bouts of rough sex with her husband finds pleasure in their invisible electric fence.  Each day, after the husband goes off to work, she puts their dog Marky in front of the TV to watch Animal Planet then goes out to the edge of the yard:
I wind the vinyl part of Marky’s collar around my hand, holding the plastic receiver in my palm, and then I press the cold metal stimulator against my underwear, step forward, and the jolt is delivered. Like a million ants biting. Like teeth. Like the G-spot exists. Like a tiny knife, a precise pinch. Like fireworks. I can’t help it—I cry out; my underwear is flooded with perfect warmth. I lie back in the grass and see stars.

Still with me?  If that paragraph shocks and jolts you, then trust me when I say that it's one of the tamer moments in Hunter's squirm-worthy stories.  I'm not trying to push readers away from Daddy's—quite the opposite, in fact—but I did want to make you aware that this book is not for everyone.

Put another way, do you remember the way we felt the first time we read Flannery O'Connor and gasped at her daring combination of religion and grotesque humor?  Daddy's slaps our face with that same kind of brass-ballsiness.  What O'Connor was to Catholicism, Hunter is to sex.  And self-mutilation and incest and domestic violence—any number of things we talk about in low voices behind cupped hands.

The explicit stories in Hunter's collection aren't just eye-opening, they're eye-popping.  What else can you say about a story that begins with "We dream about throwing baby in the well"?  Or "Sex Armageddon," a story about a homeless living in their car:
     To keep warm we play sex armageddon. It used to be called analocalypse. Sex armageddon sounds more serious and less specific.
     Anything goes in sex armageddon. Jordan once snorted a Frito and coughed it out onto my breasts, then clapped them together until the Frito was in bits.
Or this paragraph from "Food Luck":
     Remember how Mom would eat a dozen eggs and a pan of bacon, and remember how that one Christmas she went to stretch and found an old brown napkin wedged in her neckfat, how then we wanted to know what else was hiding in there, a diary, a housekey, a slice of pizza, and hey remember when we joked that Dad was in there somewhere, because that was how we dealt with Dad leaving us and moving in with the man who ran the movie theater.
That's a good example of the way Hunter pairs latent sadness with the seamy details of her characters' lives.  The dog-collar orgasms, the pie-eating-contest barf, the forlorn chafe of masturbation, the fat fathers who wear bras: at times, Daddy's is the literary equivalent of a John Waters movie—and you may feel like showering after each story.  But where Waters shocks for shock's sake, Hunter uses the grotesque as a gateway into the loneliness that darkens many of our lives, whether you like your Oreos with melted Velveeta or not.

We may start off reading Daddy's for many of the same reasons we read Chuck Palahniuk: it's a little flaunty, a little daring, a little naughty.  Then, somewhere along the line, Hunter brings us to a place where we feel moments of empathy among the Cheeto crumbs.  She takes us where we would not normally go willingly, but even among the sordid and grimy, there are moments of startling beauty.  Hunter uses words like electric live wires.  In here, stars twinkle "white as little baby teeth," bits of cherry pie stick to the corners of a mouth "like blood under a neon light," a mother yearning for her baby has "nipples like lit matchheads" and the ghost of a dead brother pays a visit to his young siblings in this extraordinary paragraph:
     Sure enough Davey’s ghost came fluttering in flimsy as a leaf husk and settled on the toilet. We could see right through to the ruby jewel pump in his chest. You want me to I can gather up that navy winking sky and make us a diamondsparkled sail of it, Davey said, and his voice was the same but unnatural, like some busted chorus of bells clattered out his throat along with everything else.
Hunter can get away with heightened metaphorical language like this because the entire collection is bold and fierce.  Like a bottled hot sauce you're trying for the first time, there's always that first hesitant moment before you put it on your tongue.  Make no mistake: Hunter burns; oh brother, does she burn delicious.

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