The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues
JUNE 2023 Issue

Henry Hoke’s Open Throat

Henry Hoke
Open Throat
(MCD, 2023)

When I left Los Angeles in 2018, we had just experienced the unprecedented Camp Fires, which destroyed 153,336 acres of land and 18,000 homes and structures, contaminating the region for years to come and polluting the air all the way up to San Francisco. The tales less told in this sprawl-induced disaster, are the repercussions on local wildlife habitats. The mascot of the latter might be P-22, the ill-fated but media-beloved mountain lion who lived below the Hollywood Sign and who was put down in late 2022 due to disease, mange, and fractures. P-22’s displacement from home and resources, invoked the lion to wander famously into the basement of a Los Feliz home and capture the hearts of Angelenos everywhere, so much so that he received a Tataviam and Chumash burial ceremony and inspired several books, including Henry Hoke’s 2023 novel, Open Throat.

Open Throat is the story of a mountain lion with internal monologue who lives alone in a thicket in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The story unfolds as he watches hikers pass by discussing very LA things like therapists and helicopters. From these hikers, he learns English. The title suggests the training singers perform to open their throats to project their singing voice further and stronger. Throughout the novel, the lion tampers his roar, has nothing to say, or cannot speak; he’s timid. But he learns human language and rolls it over like sculptural material—fun words for anyone to say, like fuck, piss, whipcrack. 

The book opens with the lion observing a BDSM encounter in the park between two men and a woman. A great emphasis is placed on the “whipcrack noise” of the fuck, perhaps a nod to the storied power dynamics between ringmaster and lion in which the “king of the jungle” was meant to perform for the “king of the civilized world.” “I try to understand people but they make it hard,” the lion thinks. This lion is seemingly a friendly lion—his opportunities for dinner abound and yet he stays hungry; Hoke sets the reader up with a slew of mindless ditzes whose necks approach the jaw of their death. But the jaw never snaps down. Instead, the congenial, if not slightly depressed, lion delivers fallen dollars to his “people” who live in a tent city somewhere in the park. 

Hoke’s syntax throughout is a marvel, capturing the effect of someone new to a language saying the darndest things, and yet summoning up that penetrating ideas often arrive in simple delivery. The book unfolds in a single sentence over approximately eighteen thousand words. It belongs both to the somewhat fusty but nevertheless capacious genre of the novel-in-fragments, as well as to a small cadre of single-sentence novels, including another that features an endangered animal (who also dies by car accident): László Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf, wherein a philosopher is tagged to find the last wolf of Spain’s Extremadura. The philosopher describes Extremadura as “a mercilessly barren, flat place, with a few small hills generally near the border, horribly dry, the hills bare, the earth dried out, with hardly any people since life was as hard as it could be there, serious poverty, an utterly parched place, why the hell go to Extremadura,” which could easily extend to descriptions of Holocene-era Los Angeles. He also says of wolves, “when they have made a territory theirs it remains theirs forever, it is their possession, and no matter if that territory extends over fifty hectares they still can’t leave it, because that is their law… it’s the way they think, it’s their nature”

But whereas Wolf evokes the breathless rant in its punctuation-less associative rambling, Hoke’s sentence takes pause in the form of line and chapter breaks and spare prose. With a book as slim as Open Throat, there’s no hiding such formal choices. The mountain lion states “I think I’m a poet,” further confusing the genre bounds. The only word that is capitalized is “I”, purporting the lion’s interiority and authorial agency. The beginning of each chapter is set in larger font, signaling a change in time. Donald Barthelme’s 2569-word single-sentence essay, “The Sentence,” closes: “the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones.” A mountain lion has no use of periods, commas, or semicolons. The effect in Open Throat evokes a big cat stalking its prey, a narrator unsure of its language, or an editorial choice to make a man-made sentence book-length.

A particular word used only in jacket copy stands out: applying the word queer to the lion. Like a period at the end of a sentence, what use does a mountain lion have with this word? Is this an attempt at making the animal more relatable to the human, and if so, is that not the opposite of what we hope for from non-human narrators, something beyond the strictures we’ve created for ourselves, such as named gender and sexuality? We’ll never know if the two male lions who share a kill in Open Throat are in love or if there is some evolutionary purpose to eating together or if they’re just kind of starving. Despite a shared origin, human and animal are incommensurable at this point.

But I’ve gotten into the thicket. All these existential and formal queries aside, which are worthy of investigating through writing, and to which the imperatives belong to our apophatic Human Imaginations broadly, here is what I really want to say. Open Throat is a tight, funny book with an alarmingly unique tone, and with an ending that redeems itself from all the questions that pad along the way. We come to expect certain Paddington qualities from Hoke’s lion. But it’s wrong, Hoke suggests, to imagine and project our human desires onto this animal. This lion has other intentions. 

After an earthquake, the mountain lion sees the two men from the BDSM hookup smoking cigarettes. The sadist wants to play a joke on the tent city and sets one of the tents on fire, which, as anyone who knows Los Angeles hiking spots knows, is kindling for a forest fire. The act displaces the humans and the lion. Our lion wanders into the Hollywood Hills, where he encounters a teenage girl smoking a pipe. He moves in under the porch of her home, where she lives with her father, stepmother, and newborn step-sibling. The girl gives the lion a name: heckit. This naming marks a turn from nature meditation to a wobbly, buddy caper. The tonal shift is jarring, pummeling over the beautiful slow prowl of the first three quarters and depositing readers in the realm of dreams—the girl adopts the lion and sets him up in her bedroom, takes him to Disney (“disnee”), and drives him in her car. Quickly, thankfully, nature’s equilibrium returns: her father finds out, is furious, and from the getaway car, the lion sees the sadist eating at one of those ubiquitous outdoor casual dining spots on Sunset, leaps out, and satiates his hunger on the man’s pulsating jugular. At last, this creature, who has his own ways of being, language, and logic, which we humans will never be able to understand, speaks his mind. 

Also as I wrote this, a wolverine was spotted out of its range for the first time in thirty years. Clocked by two bystanders in Salem, Oregon, this big weasel (that looks like Paddington) traveled from its home—likely in Alaska—for reasons unbeknownst but easily deduced. As we push back natural habitats, it’s inevitable that those who once lived there push into ours. Long silenced, it’s these animals in our house who will now call the shots. In addition to the genre of formal texts, Open Throat contributes to a vast realm of anthropomorphic literary characters, including the anxious rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, the encroached panther from The Jungle Book, the refugee bunnies in Watership Down, and, dating far, far back, Hesiod’s Hawk and Nightingale, a parable from his farmer’s almanac. When the hawk—symbolic of the irrevocable damage of Man’s Iron Age—seizes the nightingale for food, he chides his crying prey, “Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you. And if I please I will make my meal of you, or else let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame.”


Meg Whiteford

Meg Whiteford is an author, essayist, and critic.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues