Chuck Palahniuk said something about writing that echoed in my head while reading the debut collection of dysfunctional short stories in Daddy’s (Featherproof) by Lindsay Hunter. I paraphrase, but it goes something like this: “Teach me something, make me laugh, and break my heart.” And that’s what Lindsay Hunter does in this gut-wrenching collection of short fiction, with a sprinkling of hot sex and familial violence on top.
Set in primarily rural areas (inspired by her time in Ocoee, Florida from the years 1986 to 1996), these stories ring true in horrifying detail. If you’ve ever spent any time in the south, tipped some cows, maybe sniffed your sister’s panties out of curiosity, puked in a raggedy hotel room, seen your mama naked, or taken a backhand from your daddy, then you know what I’m saying. And that’s what gives these powerful stories of abuse, longing, and depravity their power: the authority in them.
Lindsay Hunter is fearless in her storytelling, no subject taboo, no moment from the past too dark or questionable to put down on paper. It makes me want to give her a hug, and then I remember, it’s fiction, dummy. She’s making worlds here, worlds where she doesn’t turn the camera away from the dirty parts, the naughty moments with a conquest, or perhaps alone, as in “The Fence,” one of my favorite stories from this collection.
In “The Fence,” the narrator gets off on an electric dog collar, placing it between her legs, slowly inching up to the edge of their property where the invisible fence lies buried, until the shock goes off:
“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.”
And it only escalates. You can’t remain a passive viewer here, as waves of disgust mix with arousal, jealousy with sympathy, at the lengths the narrator goes to in order to feel alive.
In the end, the fence is taken away, her husband Tim asserting that they don’t need it any more, since their dog Marky certainly won’t stray now. But he does. He runs away the moment that fence is turned off, sauntering to the edge of their property line, and then across, and gone, as she watches, in silence.
The final paragraph echoes her loss, this connection she had made with herself, this dramatic monologue that she acted out on a daily basis, collapsing on the wet grass, complete. Her final thoughts, just after the dog, Marky, takes off into the woods:
“I put his water dish in the suds and cleaned that, too, and then I went upstairs and lay on our bed and wept until my ribs were sore. I went into our bathroom and straddled the edge of the tub, and it felt good to have something hard and cold there, but not nearly good enough.”
There are climaxes throughout this collection, both literal and figurative, and it is the latter that makes for some of her most powerful stories. I don’t think I’ll be taking away any of the her power with these stories to show one of these endings here, because the lead up to these moments is a gradual crescendo, building to something that echoes off the page, the imagery in black and white, the flash freezing it in your mind’s eye. You’ll have to experience that journey on your own, the sum larger than the parts.
For example, take “That Baby,” another of my favorites, the story of a baby boy named Levis that grows at a frighteningly rapid rate (to 40 pounds in the first week). His cute behaviors quickly turn into violent, disturbing actions, grasping at his momma’s breasts, teeth sticking out, his hands rough, uttering phrases like “Pickles, honey.” He brandishes a paring knife at his Daddy’s belly, drool running down his chin, and it isn’t long before Daddy runs out of them.
In the final scene where she abandons the boy in a park, either racing away from all of her motherly instincts, or embracing her greater need for survival, the haunting imagery stays with you:
“…and so getting up and walking to the car, Levis saying Honey? Levis standing up to see better, saying Honey…me getting into the car and locking the doors, key in the ignition, Levis just standing there, the late afternoon sunlight giving him a glow, just standing there with his fists at his sides, looking like a fat little man more than anybody’s baby, a little fat man beating his chest now, me pulling out onto the road, Levis wailing Honey, wailing Pickles, getting smaller and smaller in the rearview until I took a turn and he was gone, my heart like a fist to the door and my breasts empty and my nipples like lit matchheads.”
These are powerful stories, the twists and turns that Lindsay Hunter takes, away from the expected, down roads we usually pass up, preferring to avoid that dusty, bumpy ride, wanting to skip the rotting, musky scent of a decomposing skunk by the roadside, instead, staying on the highway, where everything flies by in a blur, and nothing has to hurt. In Daddy’s you’ll notice the possessive, not the plural, and the ownership of the actions in these stories, the dominance and simple belief in life a certain way never falters. This collection of southern gothics is a contemporary look at life in the shadows, the temptations and depravity that lurk behind closed doors and drawn lace curtains, yellowed by cigarette smoke, and torn at the edges. The longing and need for acceptance is evident on every page, reminding us of how far we sometimes have to go to survive the toxicities in our life, to emerge alive and whole.