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TOAD by Katherine Dunn Kirkus Star


by Katherine Dunn

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2022
ISBN: 978-0-374-60232-1
Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A posthumously published novel from the author of Geek Love (1989).

Dunn’s magnum opus—the tale of a family of carnival freaks—is a true cult classic, but the year it was published, it was also a finalist for the thoroughly mainstream National Book Award. Geek Love has never been out of print, and it continues to be a solid backlist performer. Few authors with one bestseller get an obituary in the New York Times, but Dunn achieved that distinction in 2016. She’s an author who wrote a book about outsiders who has been embraced by insiders. This newly published novel suggests that this counterculture hero had a complicated relationship with the counterculture of her youth. The narrator is Sally Gunnar, a woman who has chosen to live alone except for the goldfish she keeps in a jar on her kitchen table, the toad that lives in her yard, and the handful of visitors she invites into her house. When her sister-in-law asks, “Remember Sam and Carlotta? Whatever became of them?” Sally drifts back to Portland in the 1960s. A student at a small liberal arts school—Dunn attended Reed—Sam is, in Sally’s words, a “spunky little character with an intellectual air.” He’s also a jackass. In his desire to outgrow his middle-class New York upbringing, Sam tries on a variety of names and ethnicities. He falls in love with Carlotta, an ethereal hippy who seems to find him as profound as he finds himself. Together with a narcissistic psychology student named Rennel, these misfits form something close to a family. Sally is part of this unit—she even starts taking classes at their fancy college—but she never loses an outsider’s perspective. She recognizes that her friends are ridiculous, and she loves them anyway. As the narrative moves back and forth in time, it takes a dark turn. Sam and Carlotta’s belief that they are equipped to live off the land leads to tragedy. Sally’s self-deprecation—which at first seems like her viewing herself with the same irony with which she regards her friends—turns out to be a mask for clinical depression. But Sally endures to find a fragile peace, carefully tended day by day.

A gentle, funny, heartbreaking indictment of the naïve excesses of the 1960s and the testament of a woman who survived them.