Before we even crack open Lindsay Hunter’s second novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, we are met with a literal sea of food. Cupcakes, Twinkies, french fries, lollipops, Circus Peanuts, Pop-Tarts, and more riddle the cover, somehow managing to look both enticing and revolting at the same time. It’s easy to imagine the protagonist—58-year-old, overweight food addict Greg—pushing aside such a pile from every surface in the RV he has rented to travel from his home in West Virginia to central Florida in search of his son, GJ, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in three weeks.
Hunter’s second novel is not a road story in the traditional sense. Greg’s journey, like much of his life, begins and ends in the same place. He is caught in a loop of his own making—a loop fueled by the trials of divorce and remarriage, being a parent to an addict, and of course, his own addiction. Despite their estrangement, Greg and his ex-wife Marie are perpetually caught in the same dynamic that brought them together in college, relapsing like addicts into familiar patterns when they reunite in search of GJ. Greg’s new wife, Deb, is the only one who seems to exist outside of these interlocking vicious cycles. It is only with her help renting the RV that Greg is able to commit to the pilgrimage that sets the novel in motion.
Hunter breathes inimitable life into these characters, instantly recognizable in their flaws. We all know someone like Greg, and his every (no doubt labored) breath feels achingly familiar, even as Hunter leaves physical descriptions as the merest sketches. But as real as she makes her characters seem, she has managed to conjure a truly vibrant setting in the bedraggled Florida landscape. Strip clubs, gas stations, and highway medians shimmer off the page at Hunter’s smallest suggestion of the perfect detail.
In its needle-threadingly ideal balance of humor and pathos, Eat Only When You’re Hungry leaves us if not with a sense of hope, then with a sense of groundedness. There is almost a sense of reassurance in the recognition of the ways in which addiction leads families down familiar yet unavoidable paths. Kinship can be found even in less than desirable traits—but it is kinship nonetheless. Whether the novel can be considered an uplifting read will depend a great deal on the reader, but if nothing else, it is deftly rendered and heartbreakingly real. Just as the stark cover photograph almost makes us ashamed to salivate, the story itself has the power to shock us into submission with its raw humanity.
Connor Ferguson is a writer and translator from Boston. His work has appeared in The Millions, Hobart, The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, Gargoyle, and elsewhere.
Lindsay Hunter is the author of the novel Ugly Girls and the story collections Don’t Kiss Me and Daddy’s. Her next novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, will be released in August of 2017. She lives in Chicago with her husband, sons, and dogs.