Daddy's, Lindsay Hunter's debut collection of gothicky, voice-driven stories, was published in 2010 by Featherproof Books, an independent press out of Chicago. The book was as unusual as the stories, with a cover flap that made it resemble a tackle box. Though Hunter's follow-up collection, Don't Kiss Me, released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux last month, has a more conventional appearance, these stories are just as strange—if not stranger—than their predecessors.
Most of the stories are monologues from women resigned to roles they never asked to play. These aren't women who've loved and lost so much as made a clumsy gesture in love's direction and got trampled for their trouble. Or, as the aggrieved narrator of "Candles" exclaims, "THE LORD TAKETH, THANK GOD."
Hunter laces the despair with caustic humor and crackling wit. "This boy went with a girlfriend of mine," proclaims the tough-talking heroine of "Plans." "But sometimes that's just tough shit." Her tongue is both her best weapon and only defense against the scorn that comes her way.
The strangest story in the collection, "Our Man," features a bizarre investigation of a missing husband and father who may have been murdered and/or might be a ghost. The story reads like a stage play without stage direction, leaving this reader feeling curiously unmoored.
"You and Your Cats," which is perhaps the saddest story, is a cautionary tale for depressive pet-owners:
"You couldn't keep up with the litter box, and one wasn't enough, or two or three, so you sprinkled litter over the linoleum in the downstairs bathroom, you sprinkled till there were dunes, and you felt satisfied at the solution."
When the authorities come to investigate the hordes of cats that have taken up residence in the cat lady's home, she greets their disgust with aplomb. "Come in but mind the dunes."
F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped that "the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time." Hunter takes this a step further, forcing her readers to simultaneously feel those conflicting ideas. The result is a uniquely unsettling reading experience.
If Hunter raises the sexual stakes with Don't Kiss Me, then Alissa Nutting, whose debut novel was published by Ecco last month, goes all in with Tampa.
Celeste Price, Nutting's protagonist, seems to have it all: extravagant beauty, a luxurious home and a handsome husband who comes from a wealthy family. But Celeste has a secret side that she's been waiting her whole life to act on: She's sexually attracted to young boys.
When the novel opens, Celeste is preparing for her first day as an eighth-grade English teacher, a position she's sought for the sole purpose of seducing the student who meets her specifications. With the callous eye of a predator, she seeks someone neither bold nor shy, interested but not aggressive. She finds her match in Jack Patrick.
"He was at the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit him: undeniably male but not man. I loved the lanky-limbed smoothness, the plasticity of his limbs, the way his frame shunned both fat and muscle. It had not yet been wrestled into a fixed shape."
Celeste, who was inspired by convicted Tampa schoolteacher Debra Lafave, studies her prey like a lepidopterologist examining a butterfly, waiting for the right moment to snare Jack in her net. But make no mistake: Celeste is no Humbert Humbert. Jack isn't an object of misplaced desire—he's a target. Nor is this the story of an ill-advised teacher-student romance that pops up in the papers from time to time; it's something far more sinister.
Unfortunately, Tampa's plot takes its cues from soap operas and features bizarre love triangles, shocking revelations and over-the-top violence that would not be out of place in a telenovela. This feels like a missed opportunity.
To say there aren't many female child-predator protagonists out there is an understatement. Nutting paints a fascinating portrait of a sexually charged schemer who's neither confused nor out of control. Celeste knows exactly what she needs and there is no line—legal, moral or otherwise—that she isn't willing to cross.
This is interesting territory to be sure, but instead of a chilling portrait of a monster, the story turns outward and engages in needless stakes-raising—Murder! Secret pacts! Double-crosses!—that transforms Celeste into a run-of-the-mill sociopath.