Hunter's Moon by Philip Caputo
Monday, August 5, 2019 at 7:49AM
TChris in General Fiction, Philip Caputo

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on August 6, 2019

Hunter’s Moon is billed as “a novel in stories.” The first few stories appear to be related only by location (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and hunting. The eventual reappearance of characters in earlier stories begins to justify the use of the word “novel,” although this is really a collection of stories that are linked not just by recurring characters but by the theme of men searching for ways to cope with damaged lives.

Hunting makes the difference between life and death stark, as do these stories. They aren’t the kind of hunting stories that might have appeared in Boy’s Life. One begins with this sentence: “I’ve understood why a son might be driven to kill a cruel father, but a father murdering his son, no matter how delinquent, has always struck me as an unthinkable crime against nature, right up to the moment when my son made me think it.”

The first story sets the stage for several that follow. Paul Egremont and Tom Muhlen must babysit their friend Bill Erickson on a hunting trip. Bill’s wife has instructed them to put Zoloft in his orange juice and to keep him from drinking. Soon after the story begins, Bill is dead. The circumstances of the death are initially ambiguous, and that ambiguity comes back to haunt his widow in a later story. Her story involves making a new life and meeting a new (married) hunter.

Jeff is ostensibly on a hunting trip in the UP with his elderly father Hal, having been persuaded by his siblings to take the old man off their hands for a bit. Jeff and Hal drive to a cabin to meet Jeff’s three friends. When they aren’t hunting, and even when they are, they fill time by airing old grievances.

In the most eventful story, Will Treadwell is hired as a guide to takes two cops bowhunting. A perpetually offended local redneck decides to go hunting for Will and the cops. The encounter brings back Will’s memories of Vietnam. A later story addresses Will’s poor adjustment to retirement after selling a bar, some years after he last worked as a guide. He’s trying to forget all the pain in his past rather than learning how to live with it, and it is changing him into a person he doesn’t want to be.

The son who makes his father contemplate murder is Trey, son of Paul Egremont, and Paul’s thought occurs not on a UP hunting trip but on a fishing trip in Alaska. Neither he nor his son are fundamentally bad people. The question is whether the man-against-nature challenge they confront will inspire either or both of them to gain a new perspective on their lives and relationship.

Will’s hunting friend Phil tells the last story. Phil, like Will, is a Vietnam veteran. Phil tells of his experience as a combat journalist; Will tells the story of his former bartender, a post-9/11 veteran whose life has gone to ruin. Will is now volunteering at a wellness center as a mentor for veterans who need help readjusting. The center was founded by characters we meet in an earlier story. Phil’s reaction to their New Age methodology lightens a serious story about the horror of war and its impact on people who witness indiscriminate destruction. As Phil comes to realize, a true war story has “no heroes, no excitement, and no redemption” and the people who tell them are also, like the dead and maimed they describe, casualties of war.

As we reencounter characters from earlier stories, we see how events shape lives, how people change in response to their experiences, sometimes reimaging their lives and learning to find comfort inside their skin. At the same time, the final story makes clear that taking control of our lives after tragic or disheartening experiences is challenging. It takes time to make positive changes. Sometimes help is required, but nobody changes until they are ready, and we have very little ability to hasten that journey.

The stories have a collective power, an energy that builds. The last story would be powerful if it stood alone, but the reader’s familiarity with Will adds an extra dimension of understanding. With the exception of the story that focuses on Bill’s widow, this is an exceptionally masculine book, but it portrays solitary men with an honesty that male-centric “tough guy” thrillers never achieve. Some of the stories are stronger than others, but they work together to convey a deep understanding of broken lives and wounded men.

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Article originally appeared on Tzer Island (http://www.tzerisland.com/).
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