F*ckface: And Other Stories Leah Hampton Henry Holt and Co. July 2020 ISBN: 9781250259592 208 pages $25.99 Order now!
A touch didactic, but altogether an emphatic and funny debut collection about Southern Appalachia.
The twelve stories in Hampton’s debut collection show us a rural Appalachia in flux, where locals and tourists mingle; ecological catastrophe looms; and smart women dare to imagine different lives. Hampton, a native of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a degree from the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin, weaves distinct voices and perspectives from the misunderstood region. While not exactly linked, the stories here are patchwork—but not a patchwork quilt, as Hampton resists many of the mum-and-pop clichés of regional literature.
Hampton’s prose is clear-eyed and blunt, crafted with a wry awareness of our social preconceptions about Appalachia. Most of her stories begin by situating the reader in the place of the voyeur, like a rich tourist gawking at the townies. Take the introduction to “Wireless”: “The Holiday Inn Express on Richland Skyway seemed like a good a place as any for Margaret Price to maybe, possibly, stick her finger up a guy’s butthole.” Or the introduction to the title story, which zooms into the employee parking lot at the backside of a grocery store. “Nothing’ll ever fix what’s broken in this town, but it would be nice if they’d at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot at Food Country.”
Leah Hampton knows how to tell a story and tells hers with traditional arcs and structures that alternate driving plot with backstory. However, the kick-down-the-door introductions and quiet endings begin to feel too familiar by the end. In places, Fuckface has an overly schooled and methodical quality.
What sets Fuckface apart from other recent story collections about Appalachia is Hampton’s excellent writing about public lands and tourism. She focuses on what many of the region’s writers ignore—National Forest and Parks, not coal mines and dark hollows, offer the most interesting insight into how the region is changing. In these spaces that Hampton shows us, our ecological sins and social inequities are laid bare.
In “Parkway,” a woman wrestles with the darker side of her job, finding suicide victims along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In “Frogs,” two siblings visit a biological research station, where an interaction with a condescending biologist makes them question who really owns their local public lands. Both stories are moving and inquisitive, in part because they ask us to consider who can claim ownership over a landscape. The book’s epigraph reminds us as much, quoting Wendell Berry: “You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land.” The do-gooder biologist in “Frogs” tries to do just that.
While the women in Fuckface want more from their lives, they are also acutely aware that outside perceptions of them, as much as their material conditions, hold them down. In “Sparkle” a woman’s attraction for a husband’s co-worker is upended when he equates her rurality with ignorance while on a trip to Dollywood. Later, when he rejects her advances, she projects her insecurities onto him. “You’re not going to fuck some redneck,” she seethes. It’s a moving twist in an otherwise familiar trope of the townie being smarter than the urbanite is able to accept. (In other parts of the collection, the rural/urban dichotomy is used less successfully.)
The collection’s best story, “Meat,” isn’t set in the mountains, but at a lowland industrial pig farm. “Meat”—like the stories “Devil” and “Parkway”—shows a flair for the gothic. A college student attends a funeral and is reminded of the trauma she faced as an intern at a pig farm, where a pig survived a devastating fire only to be butchered and eaten by the employees who rescued it. At one point, Hampton even slips in an O’Connor reference, writing of the funeral: “So many people, good country people, a line of them ambling past the body, the pulpit, to Miss Florence’s family, then out to the church’s side door, to the parking lot, to home, to their hot suppers elsewhere.”
It’s moments like this where Hampton is at her best. She is skilled at moving from inside to outside perspectives of people and places, which ultimately makes the collection worth reading.
Jake Maynard’s writing appears in The New York Times, Guernica, Chattahoochee Review, Appalachian Heritage, and others.