The bold title of Lindsay Hunter's new short-story collection matches the tone of her stories as perfectly as bright red lipstick accentuates the beauty of an attractive woman.
Hunter's stories, however, aren't necessarily pretty. They are full of gravelly characters: people who don't always make good decisions and who, as the literary debate lately has been centered around, are unlikable. Yet that's exactly the reason the reader should like this book. It takes talent to write about a woman who kisses a 9-year-old, as the main character does in "My Boyfriend Del," and not make the reader want to throw the book across the room. At her best, Hunter is remarkably talented at taking sentences and twining them around the brain, creating a beautiful pattern out of ugliness.
In "RV People," she writes about a creepy cult in a constellation of words. "We drive all the night, keeping each other company. We say things about the abundance of stars, so much light, but we don't really care for stars, there are other things to notice, like woodgrain, like a sheet on the line, like the tender parts of the naked among us, like the smell of anything after it's cut into."
She writes vivid, intense descriptions like this one in "A Girl," a story about a missing girl and the indifference of the male classmates who knew her. In describing the teacher: "Chalk dusting her dress like she had a ghost dress on over her other one."
The final sentences of most of the stories are moments of brief and brilliant illumination. It wouldn't be far off to compare Lindsay Hunter to other experimental short-story writers such as Amelia Gray and Susan Steinberg. All three use language as a tool to excavate our entrenched humanity.
Whether she's talking about lonely cat ladies or girls who let boys use them, Hunter is vivid and visceral. Her characters don't shrink from the page. They proclaim their pain or their stupidity or their desires with a loud tenderness, as the main character does in "Me and Gin" — a story about female friendship and yearning for more:
"Me and Gin. That is fun to say, it is right, it is a joyful clump of words. Me and Gin is forever, we planets, everything outside us all but a darkness." The stories in "Don't Kiss Me" are flashlights illuminating an overgrown path in the woods.
Michele Filgate is a book critic and indie bookseller in New York.