A Review of Kelly J. Ford’s The Hunt
By Wiley Reiver
For all that is lost yearns to be found again, re-made and given back through the finder to itself, speech found for what is not spoken.
– William Goyen, The House of Breath
Hard on the heels of her two earlier very fine novels, this week marks the publication of Kelly J. Ford’s The Hunt, another suspenseful, subtly layered exploration of life and death, longing and loss, memory and the opacity of the present moment, all filtered through more than one queer sensibility in the fictionalized small town of Presley, Arkansas. Or, as Ford herself would delightfully put it, The Hunt is yet another “gay as fuck” thriller set in the rural Middle South.
That such a defiant, affirming, liberating subgenre exists today is a moment of social and literary progress we should not overlook. Think of how indirectly Goyen had to address his freeing, tormenting homosexuality, or maybe better, his non-exclusive heterosexuality, in the House of Breath. Originally published in 1950, its anniversary reprint in 1975 was edited to mute as much as possible the “divergent” sexuality threading through its passage. A fully restored edition was not available until 1998.
But the challenges and stakes of writing honestly about queer life in small rural communities isn’t something merely relegated to the past. Think of the myriad state legislative efforts to “disappear” LGBTQ+ persons through cruel codification of so many aspects of personal and social life those of us who are cishet (or can pass as same) can’t imagine being threatened or denied. Think of the not-remotely-subtle hints from more than one Justice on the US Supreme Court to overturn Obergefell (and much else of the case law that has preserved the autonomy and dignity of sexual minorities, racial minorities, and women who seek control over their bodies and health decisions). And think, if you can stomach it, of that viciously cretinous “song” by Jason Aldean, with its white supremacist, heteronormative (better, heteroexclusive) fever dream of gibbering hate, cleansing violence, and (certain) white folks’ Lebensraum. Whatever else Ford’s novels are, and they’re plenty more, her work, and that of other writers of color and LBGBTQ+ artists, stands as thorough-going acts of political courage and activism.
That said, Ford writes novels, not pamphlets, and whatever value we can attach to their political critiques, her work would in a deep sense fail if they aren’t also masterfully plotted stories, with compelling, distinctive characters as well as a graceful and sometimes even lyrical prose style. In fact, I would say that the political impact of the novel arises from how well Ford tells a helluva good story. Because we believe the characters and the situations in which they move and make choices, the implicit (but not entirely implicit) politics of the subgenre is endowed with greater authenticity and force.
So just what is going on in this story? The narrative centers on The Hunt, an annual Easter tradition for almost twenty years in the economically ravaged, run-down small town of Presley, Arkansas. During the weeks leading to Easter, the town’s radio station gives clues on air about where the Golden Egg is hidden. Its finder wins a cash prize. Suspended for two years due to Covid restrictions, this year’s Hunt offers a prize of $50,000. And a lot of people in Presley sure could use that money.
The only problem is that each year The Hunt has been conducted, someone has died violently or disappeared at the hands of what many Presleyites believe is a serial killer. This fact is especially painful for Nell Holcomb, sister of Garrett Holcomb, who disappeared and then was found dead, an apparent victim of drowning during the The Hunt back in 2005. Nell still carries a leaden burden of guilt for her attraction to Garrett’s girlfriend, for having desires and feelings that she believes makes her significantly responsible for what happened to her. As an adult, Nell’s openly queer and also raising her nephew Elijah, also queer, in a town where acceptance and social safety are always precarious things for those like Nell and Elijah.
The core triangle of relationships is completed by Ada, a woman of color who’s also Nell’s friend/confidant and coworker at a dingy and dismal plastic bottle manufacturing plant. There’s also an erotic undercurrent to their relationship, which is realistically and movingly depicted. I was reminded of what Daniel Woodrell accomplished in his portrayal of Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.) For different reasons, these three are each drawn toward participating in the The Hunt. As close as they all are, communication about the whys and wherefores of their respective desires to find the Golden Egg is neither easy nor simple. In this element of the narrative, Ford should be commended for how convincingly she portrays the difficulties people have in seeing even the most important things clearly in themselves or to be able to express the same to those closest to them.
Of course, complications ensue, and there’s a kind of ontic slippage that adds tension to the narrative, as over and over what seems to be the case changes radically and suddenly as Nell, Ada, and Elijah make direly important choices during The Hunt. And over the course of these developments, what I see as a major theme emerges in not only this, but all, of Ford’s novels. It has to do with the traumas of losing or being cast from one’s family of origin, and the sometimes desperate, always fervent capacity the human heart has for finding families of different compositions from the vicissitudes of our lives. And like Goyen in The House of Breath, Ford in The Hunt reminds us even when we speak to the future, our voices are always echoing back into the past, to try to rescue and re-order what’s been lost, what will remain lost, unless found, if ever, in the empty hand of memory.
Wiley Reiver is from the South Carolina Lowcountry but currently lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He works in university administration. He’s also been a picture framer, college English teacher, ESL instructor in Iraq, racetrack bathroom cleaner, and very bad maker of donuts. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared under other names in the New York Times, Fried Chicken and Coffee, the Civil War Monitor, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He’s at work on a New Orleans crime novel. Twitter: @SFWriter3.