The Hook and The Haymaker, Jared Yates Sexton Split Lip Press, 2014 ISBN: 978-0-9909035-2-9 Reviewed by Julie Demoff-Larson
Jared Yates Sexton’s short story collection, The Hook and The Haymaker is a solid example of blue collar/working class, down-and out, winter of our discontent writing. Detailed and character driven, Sexton’s stories explore relationships—the good, the bad, and the complicated—and the longing for something different and exciting in life. This 24 story full length collection delivers on many fronts and leaves little to be questioned. Sexton throws the first punch in the title story about a pair of ex-boxers struggling to hold onto their identity, and continues with stories that either hook you in through cleaver metaphor or deliver with a complete in your face beat-down.
Sexton’s writing is strongest through the characters he develops. Each story captures the essence of the characters whether it be through action or spot-on dialogue that not only reveals specific cultural quirks, but also moves the story forward—a skill many writers lack. Most compelling are those with character flaws, which actually are pretty much all of his characters. A fine example is Faye, White, and Barry in “Outlaws.” The exchanges between the three reveal so much about each personality. White, lost and not quite content is his new relationship with Faye, is impulsive and savors the new found freedom from his previous married life. Faye, a young free spirit with no real responsibility, and Barry, the weird motel owner they friend add just enough naivety and strangeness to the story.
But it is Sexton’s male characters that draw the reader in. Is the collection a bit “male-centric”—sure. Does that take away from the storytelling—no. Sometimes the female supporting cast comes off as underdeveloped or even as the dreaded “bitchy” character, but Sexton is trying to make a point. There is relevance, and even a lesson or two in a “this is my brand of feminism” kind of way. In “Punch-For-Punch,” Trudy takes a back seat in the story, but her presence is essential to the plot line as the main protagonist is suddenly discontent and unfulfilled by the perfect world she has created solely for his happiness. This discontent is a common thread throughout the collection and comes to a head in this story when Trudy finally blows up when the main character voices his issue with the perfect life:
“At first Trudy was confused, but soon she sprung into action. She lit into the walls and tore the paper with her fingernails until it was hanging in threads and her nails were bleeding. Next she tossed her apron and the pots and pans. They were joined by all the utensils and liners and the mess started to grow and the juices from the food leaked out onto the floor and the juice turned dark with the dirt and tarnish and the puddle seeped out until it was nearly to the baseboards…
There, she said. Are you happy now? I looked around. Looked at the floor. Looked at her. Well, I said, no. For starters, just look at this mess.”
Here, Sexton is adept at showing the assholery of men, poking fun at the indecisiveness that is often the case. The struggle between the freedoms of being single and the comforts of homemaking plague many of the characters—male and female. In “That Extra Mile,” there is a great subtext at play as Hannah (wife) struggles with the bitterness and downright contempt she feels for her sniveling, weak-minded husband (Brinson). The story is set through the duration of a day in which Hannah is at work having to deal with a constant stream of blood flowing from Brinson’s nose. A whole lot happens in the story, but what I take away is how the bloody nose represents the slow demise of a relationship that cannot be reversed, especially when one partner is asking for help from all of the wrong people and the other just doesn’t care if the bleeding is there in the first place. There are many layers going on here, and this is a great example to use in study.
The Hook and The Haymaker is wildly detailed, grungy, and has its share of WTF moments. There are holes in a few of the stories that I would have liked to have been cleared up and some endings are a bit weak, but that does not take away from the collection as a whole. Fun and energetic, I say get a copy and enjoy.