November 8, 2012
A time as I was coming up north through the twilight, heading for the river with its ferryman, a rider with black teeth leaned down off his horse and asked me what I was running from.
“You’re looking at it,” I said.
Let’s start with the language of Kind One (Coffee House Press, 2012). Laird Hunt takes on one of the bigger risks in fiction by creating a primary narrator – Ginny – who is regional, poorly educated, and located in the distant past, all of which could be a recipe for cliched writing of the first order. Instead, Laird gives her (and the other, lesser narrators) a voice that speaks with a hard shimmering kind of prose poetry. Her awkward circumlocutions have the indefinable, almost Shakespearean energy of language that is being newly minted and constantly improvised. I think it’s fair to say that what Laird has done is to create a simulacrum of a 19th century voice. Is it authentic? Arguably not, at times. But is it convincing? Yes, yes, and yes. Here’s a nice example, as newly-married fourteen year-old Ginny and her much older husband Linus show her parents around his shack in Kentucky – the shack that he described as a mansion when her wooed her up in Indiana.
The next day Linus Lancaster took us on a tour of the house that wasn’t but that he said would soon someday be. We walked in its corridors and took the airs of its rooms. We climbed the stairs and stood in the Charlotte County sunshine on its balconies and looked out into the distances of Linus Lancaster’s fields. Come suppertime, Linus Lancaster had Ulysses fetch up a table, and we broke our pork and corn pone in the middle of the future banquet room. My father went along on this tour and snorted not a whit when my mother, dangling like ivy off Linus Lancaster’s arm, would marvel at the line of a wall that wasn’t any more than some milkweed floating through a sunbeam or nod at the clean crack of the glistening hardwood floors we were none of us walking on. He even, at one point, when we were touring the airy attics, commented on the quality of the underroof and the clean lines of the ceiling beams.
In 1911, aging Ginestra Lancaster begins to tell her story. At the age of fourteen, she married a distant relative who promised her a mansion and estate in Kentucky, not to mention an escape from her parent’s poor home in Indiana. The mansion turned out to be a shack, the estate a modest pig farm, and her new husband a drunk with a violent streak. Linus has a handful of black servants, who he abuses, lashing one man to death for a minor lapse. At first, Ginny makes peace with her husband’s ways, largely by mentally drifting off to a better place. But eventually, she, too, begins to abuse the two young girls who serve in the house. One day the two girls turn the tables on their tormentors, killing Linus and confining Ginny to a shack where she is chained by the ankle. I won’t spoil things by further describing the remainder of the storyline that lies half-submerged in the narrators’ haunting, beautiful prose. But there is a jarring storyline that moves back and forth across the century from 1830 to 1930. But the plot, powerful as it is, plays second fiddle to Laird Hunt’s language, which is truly something to behold.
Late in the book, Hunt inserts six small photographs, all rather blurry and overly infused with sunlight. They suggest memories or scenes quickly absorbed by someone traveling through the landscape.
Kind One is not the kind of historical fiction that comes with period appropriate props and full stage settings. It’s minimal, immersive, and utterly compelling. Hunt never lets the reader get distracted or lets the intensity become diffused. For the real subject here is violence – violence that manifests itself as a Lear-like rage against Life itself.
Comes a day when everything you had thought you had put behind you sets up a tent in the middle of what you were still hoping you could call tomorrow and yells out, “Right this way.”
Well, here I come.