Laird Hunt acquired his MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, part of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. If I had not picked up a copy of his 2003 novel, Indiana, Indiana. I would never have heard of Hunt or of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics or of the 11th Century Buddhist Monk, Naropa. And I might have forgotten all about Hunt’s background, if I hadn’t just read his 2017 release, The Evening Road.
Hunt’s background hints at his perfection of an utterly unique style, one that speaks so directly, with such riveting narrative, that it makes you believe you’ve somehow learned to read a new, eloquent language. I found this first in Indiana, Indiana. It is a lovely elegy that left me with an unidentifiable constriction in my chest – something between a transcendent sadness and a sublime ache.
Oddly, Indiana, Indiana, Hunt’s story of Noah Summers’ love and loss was more about a place where “everything . . . had gone awry” than of Indiana itself. The Evening Road evoked the Indiana I knew.
Not the state I was born in or the state I’ve lived in for the past forty years, Indiana still claims a chunk of my heart. It’s the state where I lost my virginity, where I graduated from college, where I got married, twice, and the state where, for the first and only time, I had a personal encounter with racial injustice and murder.
The rural Indiana county Laird Hunt describes in The Evening Road, north of Indianapolis, dominated by vast cornfields and long, hot summer nights, may as well have been the same racially divided county where I worked as a social worker forty-five years later. But, until I read Hunt’s description of it in 1930, I did not understand its legacy. Instead, I ran away from it.
I did understand Ottie Lee Henshaw – Hunt’s beautiful, white, smart, female lead who almost, but not quite, sidesteps the misogyny she encounters. Almost, but not quite, comes to recognize and rebel against her innate racism. I tried to help a 1975 version of her get into a job-training program.
My Indiana reality did not include a Calla Destry, the young empowered black woman who leads the second half of Hunt’s story. By the 70’s, it seemed that all the Calla Destrys had already fled, leaving behind a tiny black community in the midst of the cornfields, forgotten by the Civil Rights Movement.
But, what combined my rural Indiana experience with Hunt’s story was his telling of it. Ottie Lee and Calla are rallied by the same event – a hanging. Ottie Lee joins with the majority of whites who welcome it as a countywide- party they don’t want to miss. Calla mocks the proceedings from the steeple of the county courthouse and manages to escape the racist wrath that has consumed the town of Marvel, Indiana. Neither woman acts with anything more than the personal impulse borne of their life experience and their fiery characters.
Yet, in places where racism is like summer weather — long stretches of the predictably hot-and-almost-bearable interrupted by sudden, violent storms — it seems impossible to describe the spectrum of human experience within it. Laird Hunt explores the giddy hate-fueled excitement of the racist on one page, and on the next the spirit of the oppressed, filled with sorrow and anger but undaunted, even in the midst of the storm.