An Indictment of Human Culture, Narrated by a Mountain Lion

OPEN THROAT, by Henry Hoke

There is a moment toward the end of “Open Throat,” Henry Hoke’s slim jewel of a novel, where the narrator, a mountain lion living in the desert hills surrounding Los Angeles’s Hollywood sign, falls asleep and dreams of Disneyland. It will be hard for those who haven’t yet read this propulsive novel to understand, but the lion’s waking life at this moment is so precarious that this slippage into pleasant dream left me scared to turn the page.

We first meet the mountain lion — who uses they/them pronouns, per the publisher’s description, and identifies as queer — in somewhat happier times. Although hungry and losing their natural habitat to commercial development, they enjoy eavesdropping on privileged hikers as “they decide what is good or bad about their therapists,” and visiting “town,” where their “people” live: an encampment of unhoused people whose eventual eradication forces the mountain lion to flee.

Told in fragmented prose (I have the urge to reproduce it here with line breaks intact, like poetry), “Open Throat” follows this survival journey as we learn about the lion’s past loves and losses in crushing flashbacks. Among them are a former lover, referred to as “the kill sharer” ever since they met while preying on the same deer; a caring mother and a murderous father, whose influence hangs heavy in the lion’s consciousness. “A father to a kitten is an absence,” the lion remembers, “a grown cat to a father is a threat.”

Covering a few weeks in the mountain lion’s life, “Open Throat” deconstructs human systems and presents them from the perspective of one of their most helpless victims. Like other creatures forced into society’s margins because of queerness at its most broadly defined, the lion makes an expert observer. Their voice accesses an arsenal of wisdom that avoids cuteness and creates a lather of suspense. Weed whackers are “long sticks that end in spinning blades like tiny / … helicopters and they stand across the street / and drag the blades across the hedges sending pieces / of flying green up in the air”; an L.A. freeway that stands between the lion and where they need to go is “the long death.” We learn about the lion as we slyly learn about their ravaged habitat. Of earthquakes, the lion thinks, “I’ve felt so many shudders before but either this one / was different or I’m different.”

Readers of Hoke’s previous books (like the time-loop novel “The Groundhog Forever” or his outstanding memoir, “Sticker”) will recognize his use of sentence fragments, a device “Open Throat” matures into a vibrant blend of character and concept. The lion’s thoughts aptly represent what we might imagine an animal’s intermittent understanding of humans would be. Hoke bravely allows the lion to care for humanity — like the nice girl who arrives in the second half to prompt the Disney dream — even while correctly blaming it for the planet’s ills.

“Smallness is the realm of elegance and grace,” Steven Millhauser wrote in a 2008 essay; “it’s also the realm of perfection.” It is not in spite of its brevity — or its surrealism, or its nonhuman narrator — that “Open Throat” leaves you with such a lingering impression, but because of these elements. Only those who believe humans are superior to other species (“speciesists,” Carl Sagan called them) would be surprised that a mountain lion could evoke such profound feeling.

By removing the human perspective from the narration, “Open Throat” proposes a deceptively simple equation that exposes us for who we are: vulnerable, reckless beings who worship “green paper,” talk into wires and have rendered the natural world unlivable. More important, the novel introduces a tender, unforgettable protagonist. Though many readers will label “Open Throat” unconventional, this act of ravishing and outlandish imagination should be the norm, not the exception. At its best, fiction can make the familiar strange in order to bring readers and our world into scintillating focus. “Open Throat” is what fiction should be.

Marie-Helene Bertino is the author, most recently, of “Parakeet.”

OPEN THROAT | By Henry Hoke | 160 pp. | MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $25

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