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by Laird Hunt

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 1-56689-144-2
Publisher: Coffee House

A mentally disturbed man’s attempts to help his institutionalized wife, as related by Hunt (The Impossibly, 2001) in a Faulknerian voice that succeeds better than one would have reason to expect.

Although the setting is Indiana, there is more than a whiff of Southern Gothic about this tale, basically a family saga about an unhappy farming clan named Summers. As seen mostly from the perspective (and in the voice) of the simple-minded Noah, the Summers people like your basic cold-blooded, upstanding country folk, neither terribly perverse nor terribly interesting in their own right. Noah’s father was a schoolmaster before he married and settled down to farm life; Noah himself never learned to read and write very well and seems never to have held a job of any kind (although he delivered mail briefly during WWII when postmen were in short supply). Most of his neighbors might look upon Noah as the village idiot, but he is really more in the nature of a seer—quite literally. Noah’s odd, apparently meaningless visions often turn out to be uncanny (he once saw a grandfather clock, for example, hovering over a field in which it lay buried), and the local sheriff made use of his insights more than once. But Noah’s great curse was his inability to help his wife Opal, committed to a mental institution and subjected to the systematic horrors of 1950s-era psychiatry (electrotherapy, etc.). Hunt’s depiction of the inner workings of Noah’s mind (often phrased in extremely long stream-of-consciousness sentences) takes some getting used to, but he becomes a credible and sympathetic character in short order, and his plight—and Opal’s—become equally vivid (and heartbreaking).

At first glance, this seems to be the worst possible knockoff of 20th-Century Lit 101, but Hunt manages to infuse enough life into these old modernist bones that by the end they dance like a Halloween skeleton.