Leah Hampton isn’t fucking around. You don’t call a short story collection what she called hers if the plan is to be indirect. But for all its bluntness, her writing is subtle and multilayered. As great as Hampton is at sketching out living, breathing people, she’s at least as adept at using symbol and metaphor. Even when I could see a plot cocking its fist back, I was helpless to dodge the blow to my gut. The worst part is I was laughing out loud moments before getting clobbered.
Set in western North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, Hampton’s heroes all long to be elsewhere or are grimly resigned to ride out their fates in places where they don’t fit in, among people who are often related to them, but have little understanding about what makes them tick, nor interest in finding out. The idea that your birthplace can be foreign, unwelcoming, but still yours is a hard truth which permeates their lives. Even the most vulnerable of Hampton’s characters is thick-skinned in a way which is crucial if they have any chance of survival under conditions which might seem harsh but are merely status quo in the world they inhabit. The economy is a shambles, the marriage is a barely tolerable coexistence, and dreams are clearly just dreams. It’s all presented as normal, matter-of-fact. Yet, for all this weight, Hampton manages to let light into her people’s lives, no matter how desperate or hopeless they may appear.
It’s a testament to her sly humor that the story called “Boomer”—a word which immediately conjures a mental image of the generation currently wreaking havoc on our world—is in fact a reference to a breed of red squirrel, native to the area where Larry, the firefighter, is battling a blaze engulfing the entire region. The fire stands in for both the catastrophic results of the 2016 election and Larry’s disintegrating marriage. Hampton nimbly mixes and matches metaphors without ever coming off heavy-handed or precious. It’s like having a magician explain a trick then mesmerize you anyway.
In “Wireless” a lonely woman appears headed for an affair with her now-unhappily-married high-school friend only to be stopped in her tracks by a reminder of an old trauma which hasn’t healed. She sees how sating her desire can hurt others the way she was once hurt herself. The reader wants her to finally feel a little pleasure, but Hampton won’t let us off so easily. She vividly illustrates the cost of fleeting happiness. We’re left with the ache of wondering what might’ve been.
I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite among these twelve stories but Hampton finishes with a flourish. Dolly Parton has lately been used by writers, podcasters, and filmmakers to stand in for heartland America, tradition, feminism, conservatism, inclusivity, and any number of other movements, causes, and concepts. She is an indelible figure and Beth, the narrator of “Sparkle”, is fully under her spell. Yet a trip to Dollywood with a man she’s built up into an ideal love object ends in sobering disillusionment when Beth sees the way this man actually views her. The fairytale veneer falls away and she’s left to reckon with life as it is, rather than as she wishes it to be.
Hampton delivers harsh lessons with humor and wisdom and never looks down on people who are often the butt of jokes in the larger culture. No matter how badly they fail, her characters never lose their dimensionality. Even her monsters are rendered as human. I’ve never been a small-town grocery store clerk in love with a coworker who’s leaving, or a twin quitting a nature hike because of the guide’s condescension, or a country girl switching college majors after witnessing a hog barn burning down, but I’ve felt how they all felt at one time or another. We all have.
F*ckface and Other Stories
by Leah Hampton
Henry Holt & Co.; 208 p.