The title of Lindsay Hunter’s new collection, “Don’t Kiss Me,” is a warning, within it an implicit question: Why not?
By the time the reader has finished the first few stories, she will have figured out at least a couple reasons. For starters, Hunter’s characters are often throwing up, or being thrown up upon — vomit crops up more than a dozen times in 175 pages. She is particularly fond of the word “barf” — as in, “Del barfed up his hot dog ”— but sometimes it’s “upchuck” (“I went into the little girls’ and upchucked the egg my momma fried me that morning”) or “sick” (“Some of us are sick into the bucket”).
While all this effluvia might suggest a puerile sensibility, the opposite is true; although she trades in the unsavory, Hunter’s style is both ingenious and mature. Take the opening paragraph of “Dishes,” a veritable symphony of barf: “At breakfast my kid practices his ABCs and barfs into his cereal bowl just before Q. My other kid points out how the barf had splashed onto the table in the shape of Oklahoma. I don’t tell him it looks more like Texas, he’s a little kid and if he wants to mistake Texas for Oklahoma, it’s no skin off my [breast]. My husband wipes up the barf and I watch his shorts bunch in his ass.”
As should be evident from this passage, Hunter is keen to make her readers aware of the sex and violence pulsing just beneath mundane interactions. This narrator, like many of Hunter’s narrators, is resigned to the banal horrors that constitute her bleak existence. A general malaise is deepened by plain language and fast and loose punctuation — who needs semicolons when your kid is ralphing on the breakfast table? But above all, the scene is funny. That Hunter is able to mine the scene for humor speaks to her immense talent. The reader doesn’t laugh at the poor, puked-upon mother, but in recognition of how disgusting everyday life often is.
Those who’ve read Hunter’s excellent debut, “Daddy’s,” won’t be surprised by her feats. If that collection announced a formidable and refreshing prose stylist, “Don’t Kiss Me” cements that reputation. Its stories are funnier and more brutal than those of its predecessor. They are also shorter: There are 26 stories in “Don’t Kiss Me,” most of them fewer than five pages long.
The first three stories in “Don’t Kiss Me” — among the collection’s best — set the tone. “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” tells the tragic story of a woman in thrall of a man’s touch; in her pursuit of it, she winds up being urinated upon after falling in a dumpster. “After,” a story about the apocalypse told from the perspective of a teenage girl, describes the debasement of a rural family “after it was clear there was wasn’t no help coming, no tanks no army man no superhero no angel no wizard no God.” “My Boyfriend Del” chronicles the fraught romance between a woman and a 9-year-old boy.
Whether they’re wooing grade-schoolers or dealing with the fallout from catastrophic world events, these characters share a sense of desperation. They are losers, to put it mildly — some are violent, some seem like they could be head trauma victims, and some are merely sad. They travel through dour, frightening landscapes filled with sinister children and the beaten poor. They are mostly women. “Nixon in Retirement,” one of the few stories told from a male perspective, shows what happens when Richard Nixon meets a comely young woman on the beach. Pat Nixon throws up.
Although their settings may be unfamiliar to most of the book-buying public, the strongest of Hunter’s stories feel incredibly urgent. Hunter is such a talented writer that she makes the unimaginably unpleasant seem natural, and terrifyingly so. The book leaves the reader with the barmy aftertaste of entropy and despair.
After encountering the stories in “Don’t Kiss Me,” anyone would be hard-pressed to know what hit her. Hunter’s author bio informs us she is the cohost of a flash-fiction reading series in Chicago. It’s thrilling to imagine the faces of her audience as they were confronted by such incisive nastiness. What did they talk about when they went home?