Don’t Kiss Me, Lindsay Hunter’s second collection of ultrashort fiction—26 stories in 192 pages—gives voice to a strange and often disturbing cast of characters who abuse and are abused by the people around them. The writing is unconventional: single-sentence prose poems without terminal punctuation, short paragraphs in all caps, a faux-dramatic script. This formal experimentation is a decided strength of Hunter’s; so is her ear for pleasant-sounding phonetic figures, as in her description of Peggy Paula, a woman, like many here, devoid of self-esteem: “her lips cherry red and raw when she saw her reflection in the toaster.” Yet the collection is pervaded by perverse cruelty. Horrifying plots function more as vehicles for the formal play—always a danger in flash fiction—than as opportunities to explore the psychology of cruelty. As one character laments in the story “RV People,” “We forget who of us did the killing, it don’t matter.”
Particularly disturbing are the women almost always at the center of these “quickies,” and typically as targets of abuses including cannibalism, rape, murder, and arson. Though women narrate most of the stories, here they seem barely three-dimensional, dependent on the men who use them and define their personhood for them. The stories also tilt toward the scatological, and they’re often just downright gross: rivers of blood, urine, vomit, feces.
When easy shock gives way to real emotion, though, Don’t Kiss Me can be moving. A boy spending the night in a playground after being thrown out of his mother’s house is woken by a girl on the monkey bars: “He walked over and asked the child for some change. She stopped moving and hung there, arms straight. Her hair shimmered in defiance of such an ugly sky. For a minute Dallas saw friendship in her big child’s eyes, and he felt his heart open a little, like a blossom, or a fist.” Or the story about the evolution of a cat hoarder, which begins like this: “You got the cat you came to know as Milton the day that Indonesian man phoned up to say he wouldn’t be meeting you at the Sizzle Steak because your new hairdo reminded him of a hive of blood beetles, which was a bad omen, and while he was at it your perfume reminded him of his momma’s deathbed breath, and finally he spluttered how you made him sad, and that was really the thing of it.”
In this last story, paragraph-long sentences, written stream-of-conscious style, carry surprising bursts of feeling. But Hunter can’t sustain that throughout the book. What we’re left with, in the image-rich language of Don’t Kiss Me, is “sundrops, dollops of sun, your own collection of sunshine! In a bowl.” Otherwise, though, the bowl may be empty.