Kind One by Laird Hunt. Coffee House Press. 192pp, $14.95.
Readers who go into Laird Hunt’s Kind One looking for kindly characters are presented with an array of unlikely candidates. It simply cannot be Linus Lancaster, a farmer with delusions of grandeur (his farm is named Paradise) who beats his wife Ginny, rapes his young female slaves Cleome and Zinnia, and whips Alcofibras, the slave who tends his garden, to death. Yet, Lancaster has his own problems: on page 84 he is dead of a pig-sticker in the back of the neck, which, after all of his high-handed carrying on, feels like a kindness.
For a time it seems possible that Ginny Lancaster will be the kind one. Hers is clearly the central narrative in this novel of five connected narratives that begins with an unnamed well-digger and ends with a wealthy landowner named Lucious Wilson. The title could very well be referring to Ginny, who, tricked into becoming Mrs. Lancaster through false advertising and trucked off to Kentucky at the age of 14, is initially a friend to her new slaves, the sisters Zinnia and Cleome. But once Lancaster commences with his nightly “visits” to the girls and announces that Ginny is now “Mother” to them all, she abandons kindness in her humiliation and rage, slapping the girls as they bathe, hitting them with cooking spoons, and worse.
After Lancaster is murdered, Cleome and Zinnia take their revenge on Ginny, chaining her in a tool shed. During this time, Zinnia seethes with a barely contained rage and frequently threatens Ginny with the pig-sticker. In contrast, the now-pregnant Cleome seems the kindly one, but eventually it is Zinnia who provides Ginny with a way of escape.
In time, the aforementioned Lucious Wilson takes Ginny in. Wilson is the kindest character in the book. He falls in love with the distant Ginny and wants to marry her, but it becomes apparent that she will never really be free of her past as a tormented wife and abusive slaveholder. While important to the narrative—without him Ginny may not have had the stability to get her story down on paper—Wilson gets only a few pages to himself. He’s probably not the kind one.
In fact, it is doubtful that there is a kind one that this story is about. The title is missing an article, after all. It’s not about the kind one or a kind one but something else.
Laird Hunt has a reputation for a being a writer of difficult books. His 2006 novel, The Exquisite, took as its muse The Anatomy of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the Rembrandt painting discussed at the beginning of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. In The Exquisite,a Dr. Tulp and an Aris Kindt (the corpse at the center of Rembrandt’s anatomy lesson) inhabit not only two seemingly unrelated narratives but also share traits with characters in Hunt’s first novel, The Impossibly. Lest this précis of Hunt’s “difficulty” be off-putting, Hunt has said in an interview with Bookslut that “The Exquisite doesn’t so much call for readers to solve puzzles, but, in the face of multiple vectors of narrative, etc., to do some puzzling.” In other words, Laird’s books don’t require anything of the reader other than the willingness to go with the flow of the text and think about it afterward. In his follow-up to The Exquisite, Ray of the Star, Hunt wrote in long, chapter-sentences which made it difficult not to read the book but to stop reading it. All books should be so difficult.
Kind One is just as difficult to stop reading. Rather than propelling us through the narrative with the help of formal constraints, it presents us with five narrators telling parts of the same story. No one narrative is satisfying in itself but the combination leads to something like closure. The longest of these narratives, also entitled “Kind One,” is composed of Ginny’s memories of her life in Lancaster’s Paradise. The memories intersect each other, doubling back from time to time to recount the same events with a different focus.
Each memory starts on its own page, a device that often leaves plenty of white space during Ginny’s recollections. The effect is both of a narrator taking time to collect her thoughts or putting down memories as they occur to her.
I read Kind One for the first time last November, and when I finished, I was sure of three things: it was a book to read again and again, Hunt was a name I’d scan for in bookstores, and Kind One could be the basis of a fine film.
Kind One is a book of stark images, many of which would transfer directly to film without losing any of their power: Cleome hanging from a rope in Linus Lancaster’s well, Ginny bringing a paring knife to bed in order to freshen up a scar on her ankle, a piece of black bark with an eye looking out of it. Hunt isn’t writing with the screen in mind—his language is much more than dialogue and action—but Kind One is a quick read with recurrent images. A day or so after finishing the book it was hard not to feel that I’d seen a film of it.
In the opening section of the book—called “Overture”—a man digs a well. As he is finishing it, his baby falls in and dies. The death is clearly coming from a long way off thanks to sentences like these: “It rained the next day and the one after that. At first I tried to continue my work, deep below the earth, but the rain grew strong and the walls slick, and I knew I had lowered myself into a foolishness I might not emerge from.” After the death of his child, the narrator goes back into the well. “There were fresh earthworms floating in the water,” he tells us, “but I did not save them. Instead I reached down and pulled up handfuls of pebbles and put them in my pockets. Instead I moaned and tore at my beard.” The narrator tells us what he did and did not do in his grief, and subtly sets up the theme of decisions made and forks taken that occupies the characters in the rest of the book.
Another well figures prominently in the next section of the novel, “Kind One.” Down in the darkness of Lancaster’s well is Cleome, who is hiding from her switch-wielding master. When Lancaster tires of looking for Cleome, Ginny finds her there and asks what she’d done to make Lancaster so angry. It turns out that Cleome had spilled coffee on his shoe and caused him to trip when she tried to clean it up. Ginny laughs and says, “Sounds like maybe you deserved some switching.” Cleome does not laugh, and Ginny can feel “a cold coming up with her eyeballs out of the dark.”
With this cold comes a memory of the well-digger’s dead child:
Later, even though my wife asked me not to, I filled in the well. Our baby must be properly buried, I told my wife. She must be safe. And it did seem to me, during my labors and long after them, that my child was still down there, that she was crying and clenching her fists above the colored pebbles, that she was not buried safe and dry in the loamy dirt beside the stream.
This scene recalls the drowned ghost of Japanese drama and horror films, the vengeful ghost that will not cross over to the other side due to the circumstances of her death. I’m sure part of reason I could see Kind One as a film was because some of the genre tropes I’ve absorbed over my lifetime were activated by Hunt’s prose. But it’s not just me. In “
Post-Pulp Spaces: On Laird Hunt” Tobias Carroll thinks that some of Ginny’s punishment at the hands of Cleome and Zinnia seems “like something out of an old EC horror comic.”
A later passage strengthens the horror of Kind One. It comes when Ginny is shackled in the shed and sees the dead Alcofibras:
Then he stood still and looked at me, and looked at me and looked at me, and mouths grew up over his arms and legs and each one of them opened and all of them wailed at once, then went closed and quiet. Alcofibras then came up closer to me, his knees climbing to either side of him and his hands hitting together, and he leaned in close and when he did, ears came out of his forehead and his cheeks and his neck and his chest, until they were on every part of him and even the ears had grown ears and the ears were shaking, and I found myself sobbing because all they had to listen to was my poor breath and my poor heart, and all his mouth had had to wail to and all that eye had had to look upon was my poor self, shackled in the dark.
This is one of the scenes I saw days later, directed in the theater of my mind by Guillermo Del Toro.
In a recent interview in Bookforum, Hunt makes a parenthetical remark about how the title of his novel and Ginny’s section of the narrative is related to the Greek euphemism for the vengeful Furies of myth. Afraid of mentioning them directly, the Greeks referred to them as “the kindly ones.”
Thus, readers of Kind One need not look for kindly characters at all; it is a novel of checked rage finally spilling over. But Hunt also looks at what life is like after rage peaks. In the “Candle Story”section of Kind One, Zinnia goes on a search for Ginny in 1911, 50 years after she and the pregnant Cleome left Paradise and a chained-up Ginny. When Prosper, her nephew, asks who Ginestra Lancaster is, she tells us more about her relationship with Ginny:
There is a scar on my face that leads from my left temple to the bottom of my left cheek. It was no allowed to heal properly and even all these years later it looks raw. When he was a small boy, and one or the other of us sad and looking for comfort, Prosper took the habit of tracing that scar, gently, with his finger, like it was the trail he needed to follow to get us to where we needed to go. Sitting in that cart, under that tree, I took up his big hand and ran his long finger down that scar and said, “Ginestra Lancaster is the one who gave me that.”
Prosper sat silent with his finger on my cheek. There were frogs at work in some nearby pond and big black dragonflies haunted the trees. Prosper looked off into the green and blue and ran his finger up past my eye then back down again.
“And why are we looking for Ginestra Lancaster now?” he asked.
“Because I have something to return to her,” I said.
“Hate returns hate, Aunt Z,” said Prosper.
“Yes,” I said.
I took his hand and held my face against it for a long time.
Zinnia does not want to return hate but a gift Ginny had given her years earlier, for as she tells Lucious Wilson, she’d already gotten her use out of it.
Kind One acts as a sort of antidote to the kind of stylized rage we see in the work of a storyteller like Quentin Tarantino, whose recent movie Django Unchained also deals with slaves and their revolt. Unlike Tarantino, Hunt does more than use genre to make a statement about slavery and race in America. And it’s not that Hunt raises genre from disreputable depths with literariness, either; rather, he uses genre tropes (e.g., the drowned ghost) sparingly, to dig deeper into the reader’s consciousness.
As a film, Kind One could work rather well with a voiceover from one of the narrators. Prosper would be the most likely narrator, as his narrative takes place in relatively recent year of 1930 and represents the product, as it were, of the novel’s combined rage and kindness. I’m sure whoever made it would be tempted to have the whole thing be a series of flashbacks told by the impossibly old Prosper in 1968.
But telling it as a set of nested stories with no voiceover may be better yet. Perhaps the audience should be asked to puzzle out the connection between these stories, to wrestle with why it is named Kind One with so little kindness in it.
Chris Fletcher is a writer and educator who lives in Minneapolis, MN. He writes about literature, film, and freezing up in front of Geoff Dyer at Minnesota Pocket Journal.
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