I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Laird Hunt’s fiction before now – he’s written six novels besides The Evening Road. I remember Neverhome being published but somehow failed to get around to reading it, something I’ll be putting right very shortly. Set in 1920s Indiana, Hunt’s odyssey follows two women through a searing summer’s night on which a lynching is to take place: one white, making her way to what she sees as a show; one black, travelling in the opposite direction.
Ottie Lee Henshaw is saddled with a lecherous boss and an increasingly withdrawn husband with whom she refuses to have a child. When Bud gets wind of a lynching in Marvel, he offers Ottie a lift, picking up her husband Dale on the way. Bud drops in at a church fish supper to pass the word around, knowing he’ll pick up a few life assurance sales once death has been stared in the face. They visit a Quaker prayer vigil, pick up another passenger, suffer a catastrophic blowout while avoiding two bloodhounds wearing neckties then commandeer a mule wagon. This somewhat quarrelsome party trundles along, swigging whiskey, telling stories and shooting the breeze until both Ottie and Dale fall out of the wagon. Then Ottie hears a shot and sees Calla Destry with a gun. Calla has been travelling away from Marvel, having stolen her adoptive parents’ automobile, too grand for a black family to be seen driving in the daytime without arousing suspicions. She’s been to see the site of the lynching, hoping to help the boys escape then deliberately provoked the crowd’s anger before fleeing. She’s eaten her first orange, thought about her lover who’d failed to join her at their picnic then stolen a wagon from his mother after seeing him speechifying at a prayer meeting. Both these women travel a short distance down a very long road, their paths crossing back and forth
Hunt narrates his characters’ stories through their own voices – first Ottie, then Calla – weaving them together neatly through the episodes and incidents in which each of them unwittingly plays a part in the other’s fate. Ottie’s voice is sassily sardonic, a mask for her secret loss and fears. Calla’s is angry, her narrative darker. Smart and curious, she’s incandescent at the way black people are mistreated by whites. The writing is striking, both in its chillingly dark comedy and its vibrant descriptions. ‘The man was so filthy he looked like he’d rolled around in bacon grease then taken a long nap under the tail of a sick cow’ observes Ottie; ‘Nobody out but old Turner Jenkins trickling false hope onto his doomed geraniums with a beat-up watering can’ thinks Calla. The two women’s paths crisscross until they are brought face-to-face, each incident mirrored and illuminated by the other’s narrative. Throughout it all is the prospect of the lynching: a festive event in prospect for Ottie; a source of fury and fear for Calla. We never get to Marvel, nor should we. Hunt has very effectively shown us both sides of this sorry story, each told by women who have more in common than they might imagine. It’s quite riveting, shocking at times, very funny at others, and vividly memorable.
Reading Hunt’s novel prompted me to check the date of the last lynching in the US: shockingly, it’s 1981. In Mobile, Alabama, Michael Donald was first beaten then killed by several Ku Klux Klan members who hung his body from a tree. I’ll leave you with that.