From my library: The Hunting Years

3 05 2011

In June 1983, while working as a fashion illustrator for Jones & Jones, an upscale department store in McAllen, Texas, I accompanied my friend Andrea (also the store’s book buyer) to the American Booksellers Association convention in Dallas. (This was the same convention where I got up close and personal with several celebrities who had released books at that time: Dick Cavett, Erma Bombeck, Shirley MacLaine (can’t believe I actually found a recap from People magazine of her actual breakfast talk here!), Art Buchwald, Leo Buscaglia (‘King of the hug’ author—and yes, he did hug me, unsolicited), Leroy Neiman, Lana Turner and Richard Simmons (got a hug from him, too). I had them all autograph my badge; wish I knew where I squirreled away that item!) In the exhibit hall I picked up an “advance reading copy” of The Hunting Years, a novel by David Kranes. It was later published by Peregrine Smith Books in 1984.

Here’s the synopsis on the back: Hunt is an artist. To his wife Leah, he is an enigma. To his young sons, he is merely “sometimes weird.” In this melancholic/comic third novel, David Kranes gives us Hunt as an artist and family man trying to reconcile the life in his imagination with his life in The World.

Obviously I loved this book—it is still in my library after all these years. I’m not sure if it’s because I can somewhat identify with Hunt “trying to reconcile the life in his imagination….” or just because there are so many passages that are just painfully poetic. After I read it, I could envision it being translated into movie form. (I felt the same way after reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and voila! the producers read my mind and the movie materialized a few years later. And Hollywood, if you’re still listening, how about a film adaptation of James McBride’s book, The Color of Water?)

In my favorite passage in The Hunting Years, Hunt’s wife Leah, who loves feeding the birds outside their home, is watching the weather suddenly change from sunny to a full-blown ice storm. She had put out food for the birds just before the drastic change in weather and twenty minutes later she returns to the window and sees the birds frozen in place on the lawn.

Hunt! It was Hunt! Hunt had done this! Somehow it was all connected in her mind. And all confused. All of Hunt’s sorry seekings and indecisions had made a heaven, had made a sky that acted with such swift and stupid cruelty. Leah ran outside. No birds moved. It was thirty degrees, another upswing, and sun broke everywhere, splashed carelessly through trees and all over the yard. It made no sense. Leah moved in one direction. Then another. Her throat unwound sounds. She was a murderess! She made a word: “…Bird?” But the world was motionless. No wind even. The food globes hung around like still crystal from their strings. Unable to bear any more complicity, finally, Leah bent and snatched up a glistening husk, an evening grossbeak in its shell of ice, and hurled it, high as she could, into the white pine branches. It was a dozen forms of denial, the act. But it was fury and rage, too. It was terrible anger. But a miraculous thing happened. The boughs of the pine delicately brushed and cracked open the ice. And it dropped away. Like pieces of the finest wineglass, bough to bough, the casing fell. And the bird…! Leah’s mouth swung open. It was as though, ice free, its down and feathers radiated from some center, took on a shape, substance, grew. Leah thought she was imagining. She believed that the madness she had thought possible throughout the whole winter had arrived. But the bird rose! Wings unshackled, it assumed the air. And its freedom…and its flight…were both real. Leah shrieked a new, wild, victorious scream. She ran from imprisoned bird to imprisoned bird, falling repeatedly but lifting and unfurling them high, high into the releasing pine. Now the temperature was thirty. Now above. The sun grew generous; there was a new benevolence in the air. Fractured ice crystals fell, sounding like windchimes. Another grossbeak took flight! A chickadee! A junco! Wings beat! and Leah was spinning and falling and hurling but shouting, “Fly!” to the birds. And, “Fly!”

Although this book is rather old, I did find this excellent review below by Miriam Berkley on the The New York Times website: “Like the ambitious and provocative novel he inhabits, the hero of The Hunting Years is brilliant and elusive. An artist living on a New Hampshire farm, Hunt is a well-intentioned man but not easy to deal with as he wanders through life seeking his proper relationship to the world. His paintings vary widely in both the style and subject matter, reflecting his state of mind. He fantasizes frequently, communicates erratically and equally exasperates his wife, Leah, and his paramour, Anne. (The affair with Anne is brief—the traits that make Hunt a difficult husband, especially his inability to let another person get close, also make him a frustrating lover.) One of two young sons observes, ”Sometimes dad lives on another planet.” When the novel opens Hunt is in his ”Blue Period,” a time of emotional and artistic paralysis during which his canvases remain empty and his marriage goes sour. One morning he awakens literally paralyzed and unable to open his eyes; a doctor’s punch in Hunt’s solar plexus finally unclenches them. Later, while visiting London, he tries to slit his wrists. The landlady at the rooming house tells him, ”don’t be blue,” and upon returning home Hunt follows her injunction and begins painting outsized fruits and vegetables in brilliant colors. As Hunt’s adventures continue—he travels to Las Vegas, Nev., and Tucson, Ariz.—we witness the gradual emergence of his capacity for love. And along the way, there are some wonderful set pieces and humorous scenes—a sendup of the art world, for instance, in which Hunt works as a ”ghost painter,” the visual equivalent of a ghostwriter, and produces a series of paintings that he cannot acknowledge, or the description of Hunt’s turning to minimalism as a way of life and art after being accused of excess. David Kranes’s prose is spare and lovely, his portrait of Hunt as well as that of Leah is compelling, even if at the end his hero remains mysterious. In the final scene Hunt realizes, ”this World is too large. It’s too vast. No wonder, for a while, I was painting only avocados.” Nearly killed in an accident, he’s glad simply to be alive, and thinks, ”It was all startling.” Readers following Hunt’s adventures will agree.”