Reviewed: Ray of the Star by Laird Hunt

Coffee House Press, 2009, 194 p.
Review by Tobias Carroll

Laird Hunt knows his familiar and his unfamiliar. Indiana, Indiana illuminated the oddly shaped intimacies of a quiet Midwestern life, while The Exquisite summoned up ominous conspiracies alongside a strikingly realistic portrait of a few blocks in New York’s East Village. Ray of the Star opens in the Midwest, but quickly relocates to a European city of street artists, restless ghosts, and conspiracies. Written by Hunt in six weeks and consisting of a series of chapter-length sentences, there’s an urgency here that mirrors the desperation of his protagonist Harry.

“Then one day the deadly ones did appear.” That’s the first sentence of the novel; together, it and the chapter that follows establish the novel’s mood and tone. It’s a space in which the allegorical can shift quickly into a concrete realism. That might require a qualifier, however, given that most mundane aspects of the novel deal with Harry’s experiences as a living statue on the sidewalks of an unnamed European city. While the mechanics of Harry’s training are minutely detailed, the surrealism of his occupation, to say nothing of the vagueness of the setting, serve as an indication that Hunt is not exactly bringing in the kitchen sink here. Soon enough, we see evidence of conspiracies, unpredictable spirits, and deeply buried trauma — all elements that won’t exactly be unfamiliar to readers of Hunt’s earlier work.

At the core of this novel is a love story: Harry’s fascination, and eventually, love for Solange, herself a practitioner of the living statue craft. That Ray of the Star is a kind of romance allows for a grand emotional spectrum, encompassing both the lightest tone I’ve encountered from Hunt and the most horrific. There’s space enough here for the surreal comedy of one character’s feud with a pair of shoes and for the unsettling revelation of the true nature of a trio of patrons of the arts. And it could be argued that the speed of Hunt’s prose here, the paragraph-long sentences, mirrors both Harry’s initial panic and the growing giddiness of his romance with Solange.

While Hunt’s approach to these sentences is largely subtle, at times the architecture makes itself slightly noticeable. Certain transitions to dialogue and back are less a smooth cascade than a bumpy progression, and it’s in these moments that Hunt’s structural decision feels less organic and more like a self-imposed structural obstruction. Overall, however, this restriction does lead to a more vivid experience, and the result is arguably the most moving of Hunt’s novels — a surreal love story that’s both familiar and somehow alien, set in a city that could be described in exactly the same way.