The Hook and the Haymaker
By Jared Yates Sexton
Split Lip Press, 2015
200 pages, $16
Reviewed by Chase Burke
It’s hard to tell which character in Jared Yates Sexton’s new collection The Hook and The Haymaker lies closest to rock-bottom. They all start pretty close to the ground, and while some end their stories a little better off, others a little worse off, you get the feeling that they’ll be in similar situations again. In an interview earlier this year with Midwestern Gothic (which published the collection’s unsettling final story, “Need”) Sexton said that his characters “are capable of escaping from the orbit of their failures.” Breaking the cycle, he said, requires them to cash in on an opportunity they’ve been given. Some choose to wallow, while others just “lose their way into” remaining in that cycle—the result of a bad kind of math that their choices summed up a long time ago.
The characters in The Hook and The Haymaker’s twenty-three stories are down-on-their-luck men and women in Indiana, where Sexton grew up, and sometimes Georgia, where he now lives and teaches. Sexton is critical of his homes, but he’s affectionate as well, even as he writes about emotionally abusive partners or unhappy marriages or cruel friends. He’s being accurate, but not unkind. If some of the characters are unlikeable, it’s because they feel like real people, with real flaws and real blind spots. This book isn’t concerned with people on their good days—Sexton wants to show us what people are like on a random weekday, when the cumulative weight of a life near the bottom feels like too much to bear.
Just about everyone here wrestles with changing relationships. Many of the men are bona fide assholes, and many of the women are fed up with them. Friends abuse each other emotionally. Everyone is fighting for place in lives that are moving on without them. Sexton employs numerous metaphors throughout to detail these conflicts, starting with the title story’s punches. In “Behold, I Come As A Thief,” they’re earthquakes and aftershocks; in “Knights,” wasps; “Volcano,” a papier-mâché volcano; “Bear Fight,” a bear. Some are obvious, but they’re almost always effective shorthand for characters’ emotional distress.
A number of stories are closer to scenes than fleshed-out yarns, which is in no way a bad thing—these flash narratives focus on singular events to weave a complicated mosaic of many different fractured lives. The longer stories—such as “Outlaws,” about a couple who “took off with no real direction” before stopping at a seedy motel—draw this fracturing out, like the spider-web cracking of the windshield of a beat-up truck. The long pieces give us a welcomed space of time to live with these difficult people, which is sometimes necessary if we want to empathize with their circumstances. Maybe it’s because there are (relatively) so many of them, but some of the shorter pieces can feel a little too obvious. “Punch-For-Punch,” for example, rides the narrator’s unwarranted dissatisfaction with his idyllic life into a scene from Fight Club (“When a man asks you to break his nose you don’t have much choice in the matter.”) before turning back toward his relationship with his wife. The titular game is a little on the nose, and the story’s abrupt ending feels more like a punchline than a, well, haymaker.
But missteps are infrequent. The collection works so well because we see so many people dealing with related abstractions. There are often direct parallels between stories: “Live Off The Land” and “You Have To Have Somebody” each take dark cues from Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” while the title story and “Bear Fight” detail very different forms of fighting. You pick up on the themes as you go along. “The Extra Mile,” for example, functions as a sort of extended inverse of a story like “Punch-For-Punch,” where instead of a man feeling unfulfilled with his relatively nice life, we follow a woman, Hannah, as she navigates her own feelings of discontent. Her husband, Brinson, is laid low at the start by an unstoppable nosebleed that he doesn’t know how to handle, and he calls Hannah throughout her workday so she can tell him he’ll be okay. He fears the nosebleed is bleeding the life out of him, but what’s clear is that he’s bleeding the life out of her. When Hannah sees a commercial starring an old boyfriend, she “[feels], all at once, a combination of nothing and everything,” which sets her to wondering about what could have been, and whether what she has now is what she wants. Does this valley of discontent await every relationship in life? Not necessarily. But Sexton knows it might, because people are happy until they’re suddenly not, and who knows what can cause the shift. Life can cause the shift.
Sexton wields reliably tight language to tell these stories of men and women questioning their own happiness (or lack thereof). His sentences are tough instruments, his characters sharp vessels of colloquial—but never stereotypical—speech. He writes in his standard style, without quotation marks, so you’ll read carefully and watch closely the rising and falling of the sentences, the dialogue meeting description. There’s a kind of effortless rhythm at work, a blending of his prose and his characters’ voices. A line like “I think you’ve got a good heart but you get lost.” from “One Of Those Calls” will lay you low. This is a character talking, but of course it’s more than that. It’s the voice of a writer with a nuanced understanding of how we treat each other when we’re squaring off in the rings of friendship and love. Sexton is committed to writing about people when we’re at our lowest. And you wouldn’t want anyone else telling these stories, because no one else is willing to be this blunt. No one else is willing to hit this hard.