The third entry in a loose trilogy of books centring on pivotal historical periods in American history refracted through the perspective of interesting female characters (previously we’ve had 2012’s Kind One, subtitled An unforgettable tale of slavery in the American South, and then 2014’s Neverhome, the story of a woman who poses as a man during the American Civil War), Laird Hunt’s The Evening Road arrives at an interesting point in the history of the world. It may be, about a decade ago with the ascension of Barack Obama to the Presidency, we all thought we were moving forward into some glorious epoch when the colour of a person’s skin no longer mattered quite as much as it once did to certain people. Unfortunately, it’s come to look like Obama was the old one step forward in the time-honoured ‘one step forward, two steps back’, and racism is… well, we were going to say ‘more to the fore, more acceptable and as a result more disturbing’ but that’s possibly because we are not victims of racism ourselves and don’t know how it feels to be on the receiving end. Maybe it never went anywhere. Howsoever you look at it The Evening Road makes for an interesting read.
Inspired by ‘Strange Fruit’, which started out as a poem and became a song, first famously rendered by Billie Holiday back in the 1930s, The Evening Road concerns a lynching, and the local community’s ensuing excitement to attend. It’s 1920. First we find ourselves in the company of Ottie Lee Henshaw, a young woman busy sharpening pencils with the idea of burying them in the neck of her boss, Bud. Although she’s married – to Dale, busy raising himself a prize pig – she has been carrying on with Bud, or at least leaning in that direction (Bud can’t quite rise to the occasion but distracts himself with the effort); and Bud himself is a mischievous sort who likes to roughhouse with Dale and wink at Ottie all sly-like. The first half of the novel revolves around the journey that Ottie, Dale and Bud take, and the people they meet en route, to Marvel to witness the lynching. Roundabout the half way point, we switch perspectives to Calla Destry, a young ‘Cornflower’ (Hunt uses the term to avoid ugly racial epithets) who finds her adopted family have upped sticks even as she was left high and dry by her lover who was supposed to meet her for a picnic. Calla takes her Uncle’s car, rides into town, gets herself into trouble and then spends her day getting into one form of trouble after another (at a time when a person really didn’t want to be getting herself into trouble).
What’s to like? Well, Hunt is a tremendously talented fashioner of sentences. Check out the opening of the second half of the book for a good example:
“I stepped up slow from the river, like it was me not the good green water that had decided to follow its lazy ways.”
You’ll frequently find yourself brought up short as you read The Evening Road, either by the explicit beauty of the writing or the elegant way in which words are ornately arranged to create an interesting effect. You get the sense Hunt is quite the student of locution, imagine him reading as much source material as possible, quietly thrilling over turns of phrase that could be repurposed. His writing has a ring of authenticity to it that is both impressive and beguiling. He’s clever too. The Evening Road is a book that requires you to think about what you read, to remember characters, to parse how the same people are seen through different eyes, to intelligently loop narrative shoelaces together yourself in order to tie a knot or two. Hunt is not a writer who will do all of the work for you. We like that about him.
But – you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you? – there are issues with The Evening Road, all the same. For instance, in avoiding those ugly racial epithets, we get a sense of Hunt pulling his punches. At other times (such as when Calla dismisses the ugliness of her fellow man by saying they can’t hang everyone, can they?), you wonder if he’s being naïve. The Evening Road can be tough, no doubt; but it isn’t always tough. It isn’t always tough when it needs to be. Like Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway (which concerned the infamous Underground Railway but didn’t let that get in the way of quilts and Quakers), The Evening Road wants to be liked. It thrums with its proximity to a disturbing violent act but never gets close enough to put us off our breakfast. Sometimes you have to call ugly out. Hunt doesn’t quite do that in The Evening Road.
Any Cop?: Hunt is a fine writer, make no mistake about that, and the way in which he challenges his readers to think is laudable; we just think sometimes that a writer has to place their hand on the back of a reader’s head and smush their face down into the mud. That’s what The Evening Road needs. A bit of face-mud smushing.