Open Throat offers no full stops or respite, no distraction from the instant whipcrack of erotic hunger and existential torment. As a queer mountain lion traverses a hiking trail in “ellay,” his ruminations about humans and their shared hunt for sanity keep nagging at him. So, when a fire licks up timber and flesh alike, the need for deadly exploration rears its head one more time.
The novel opens with a scene so arresting that it demands instant engagement, allowing raw hunger to line its margins. This craving can be simultaneously traced back to three participants: the mountain lion, the whip-wielding man, and the other man lying on the ground with his legs spread. Such agglomeration of want weighs the air down with a buzz of “yes yes.”
It’s no wonder that hunger becomes synonymous with physical desire. The cougar’s thoughts, tormented by their circuitous course, do nothing but encourage this impression,
“I think of all the nights we’ll spend together
this man and his guts and me.”
Such physicality also highlights the exhilarating inadequacy of language. There’s a constant lack of articulation — both structural and implicit — despite the tiring abundance of words. After all, they do nothing but distort meaning. We see this most clearly in the mountain lion’s obsession with humans’ “scare city mentality.”
While seemingly determined not to devour the people passing him all day, thoughts of slaughter still plague the mountain lion’s brain. And so, there’s a sense of trying to defy nature. Humans, that strange breed, clog the present moment with sound, endlessly discussing therapists and shifting suppositions.
The cougar, in turn, suffers from a complexity of being that’s unknown to creatures cocooned by silence. He’s restless and anguished, “a therapist can explain why I have a shudder inside me after the shudder outside is over.”
Of course, the more time we spend with him, the more clearly we can make out a personal tragedy, with all the fear and heartbreak history entails. Romance is made universal, though it manifests differently in the two worlds stitched together in Open Throat.
Strangeness remains the overarching idea; of speech and sound, of survival and companionship, of the day-to-day. All animals are enslaved by their nature, the continuity it demands of a body removed from its troubled mind.
As much as both creatures — the human and the cougar — seek to reach something beyond themselves, the need for logic in an illogical world keeps them inhibited. The resulting need for abstraction generates a fever dream in Open Throat.
The mountain lion’s friendship with a teenage girl introduces the idea of connection, focusing on the way it can overtake the body and its urges. And while outside reminders of nature trigger biological reactions, the veiled self gives in to these machinations knowingly, “my mouth falls open and I can hear the blood.”
The mountain lion’s enlightenment, the process of gaining information through facts read to him in the “people language” he’s come to recognize, leads to a miserable departure from an uncomplicated state,
Hoke’s answer to this is lodged in increasingly obvious absurdism. By a certain point, we find ourselves drifting through a fantasy, a live-action fairytale that keeps slipping from the grasp of magical abandon.
This turn of events is certainly to be expected from such a tantalizing premise, but its dominance over the more nuanced aspects of the storyline is a little disappointing. Where before there was hunger, thirst, vulnerability, and a pull toward carnal communion, we encounter a newfound lack of tension and fear.
However, Open Throat’s meditation on violence, the deliberation on whether inherent brutality can be innocent, is thrilling in its own way. As are the final scenes of the tale, which serve as a record of the way perceived cruelty informs our dealings with the world. Is there malice in nature, or is aggression something sought out by the eye?
Wonderfully, the novel’s want comes full circle. Violence delivers satisfaction. Fulfillment emerges as consummation. The fact that all this takes on an entirely different form than expected only speaks to Hoke’s storytelling prowess.
Open Throat will be published by MCD/ FSG on June 6, 2023.