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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Arts + CultureLitHenry Hoke's queer Hollywood mountain lion sticks a paw...

Henry Hoke’s queer Hollywood mountain lion sticks a paw into the climate crisis

Sink your claws into the brief, powerful 'Open Throat.'

There are three things to know before reading Henry Hoke’s new book, Open Throat (Farrar Status and Giroux/Picador, $25). Pardon the trope, but this is the first book I can honestly say I couldn’t put down—or, that I managed only to set it aside for an hour or so, a pause occasioned by emergency. Secondly, I’m rating it as among the very best animal-narrated tales (by a crazy-ass queer mountain lion roaming the slopes beneath the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, no less) that casts its glare on diverse subjects including human foibles, erasure of climate change reality, queer identity, and of course, contemporary love.

The third “thing to know”—that, deep in a bottomless ocean of fragile creativity while writing his next book, Hoke is unavailable for an interview with 48hills—is important because it would have been swell to chat, and because it leaves a review as a journalist’s only option.

Open Throat’s protagonist is a hungry mountain lion who, as he slakes his voracious appetite, interacts in various ways with an assortment of humans, like a young girl in a blue cloak who sneaks the lion into her house to escape a raging wildfire. For reasons that, disclosed here, would kill some of the joy and astonishment of reading Hoke’s book, the lion refers to her as “little slaughter.” In turn, she gives him the name “heckit.”

Image via Henry Hoke’s Facebook page

In this book in which no sentences begin with capital letters other than those that start with “I,” and that features no punctuation marks other than apostrophes, Hoke-as-lion writes about this name.

heckit/I’ll take it/I can’t tell her my real one/my mother gave it to me when she first saw me lick blood off my lips/it’s not made of noises a person can make.”

With brevity that mirrors the miracles achieved in his novel’s spare sentences, the author’s biography tells us that Hoke “is an editor at The Offing and the author of five books, most recently the memoir Sticker and the novel Open Throat, a finalist for the Discover Prize, named a best book of 2023 by The Washington Post and “what fiction should be” by The New York Times.” A more immersive dive reveals he grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, but not much else, beyond speculative editorial projections. To learn who Hoke is and what kind of engine drives his work, helps to read his books.

Mountain lion, as seen by a camera trap, Mojave National Preserve, California. Image via Wikimedia Commons

His bio’s reserved tone reminds of a similar sense in Open Throat of suspense and mystery and dark humor that feels like Hitchcock mixed with the stand-up of Robin Williams or George Carlin. The first line, “I’ve never eaten a person but today I might,” opens a scene with whips, and heckit watching the human sex action while envisioning a possible hunt and capture. If only his kill could be dragged into a cave for slow snacking. “I think of all the nights we’ll spend together/this man and his guts and me,” heckit imagines. But the man and woman depart before he takes action, and heckit can only sleep to temporarily escape his hunger.

There’s more that could be said, and some will want to paw about the lion’s queerness for political or social import, but honestly? This is just a ferociously well-crafted book with a character it’s impossible to imagine falling in love with—yet some of us do. In the way of the best books, three consecutive readings of Open Throat each reveal new corners and caves to appreciate, more ways in which Hoke not just reflects the current, but anticipates the future world. Allthemore reasons to love heckit, and to laugh and cry at both human frailty and our occasional and inconsistent loving hearts.

Buy Open Throat here.

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