Book Review: “Open Throat” — Animal Talk

By Drew Hart

It’s really a feat — to meld the imaginary with the truth, but Open Throat does it just smashingly.

Open Throat by Henry Hoke. MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 160 pp

A whimsical question from someone in the family a hundred years ago: “What would you do if a monkey asked you?” Fifty years pass, and then we’re watching the television horse Mister Ed talk. Animals with voices have been around for a long time —

However, until now, your F.C.* has not considered hearing from a mountain lion. Especially one that lives in the hills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, above and around the Hollywood sign. Well listen up, because Henry Hoke’s surprise of a novel is narrated by one, and he (the lion, that is) does a splendid job of it. Perhaps inspired by P-22, an actual mountain lion that roamed in the same place before it met a sad demise, mourned by many in Southern California (they’re building a freeway crossing over the Ventura Freeway to allow all creatures an opportunity to travel safely), Hoke’s tale follows his lion, nameless at first, later called “Heckit” by the teenage girl he befriends, through a wild series of adventures. Heckit tells of his life in a rapid-fire series of episodes — from his days as a cub, in which his father nearly ate him, to later days when he has fled his family, bravely crossing the 405 (he calls it “the long death”) and winding up above L.A. (“Scare City”). This is a most articulate animal; he picks up on language by overhearing the voices of hikers and homeless squatters around him. From them he deduces that he is looking down on “Ellay”; that perhaps he could use a therapist, maybe would be better off in New York (no cars!) But he’s definitely around what the venerable New York Times book critic John Leonard used to call “the planet Los Angeles.” So he’s eavesdropping on talk such as: “this is not a big deal but he ghosted me whatever he’s ugly and all his friends suck,” and “fame is a real killer all I did was one commercial and now I get recognized and shouted at.”

First world Hollywood problems, those, but there’s a lot more in store for Hoke’s cat — at times he is starving, pissed on while hiding from people in bushes, being scared by fireworks or police helicopters. And worse, because 21st-century life around him is very much on display: he experiences an earthquake; a big brushfire in a homeless camp spreads and causes him to flee to the L.A. Zoo, then into the streets down the hill. Heckit winds up in a crawl basement of a house that seems to be the home of some celebrity. He’s discovered by the star’s daughter, a 17 year-old who stashes him in a spare room, feeds him, talks to him about taking him with her to ’Santa Fey.’ In what is most likely a cat dream, the two go to ‘Diznee’, eat jumbo turkey legs, and ride Splash Mountain together(!)

Exclamation point mine: while much of this must sound like a reverie — and is exceptionally so — it’s probably not surprising that Open Throat doesn’t end that way. It’s bookended by two events that will go unmentioned here; if you were hoping for a happy confection, so sorry — this skews somewhat darker. And in doing that, it captures the age, especially in the enormous city. But it’s really a feat — to meld the imaginary with the truth, and this story has done it just smashingly. It’s one you will speed through, probably in a sitting, and never regret being in the company of. More than a few months have passed since something this strong came to this neck of the woods —

Drew Hart – your *Faithful Correspondent – writes from Santa Barbara, California

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts