In fiction, cancer often comes with a specific kind of loss. Grief is felt in the sterile hospitals, rounds of chemotherapy, watching the tragic destruction of the body under medical supervision. Emotions are processed as time drags on and on in lobbies and cafeterias, thinking through the inevitable. It’s easy to get stuck in the waiting room. Amanda Goldblatt’s Hard Mouth, however, takes a turn in the opposite direction. Denny, whose father has decided to decline treatment after ten years of surviving cancer, skips town after losing her job, and trades her father’s bedside to go off the grid.
Denny, despite her flippant confidence, is comically unequipped for surviving the great outdoors, which is why it takes her some time to get there. The first half of the novel, after Denny learns her father’s cancer has returned, follows her fall from her troubled and routine career as a lab tech working with fruit flies, as well as provides glimpses of her family and social life. During this transitional period, Denny preps to flee—she researches how to live in the wilderness and sells off her household possessions—all the while bantering with a lifelong imaginary friend, Gene, who resembles a Honeymooners era Jackie Gleason. When it becomes clear her father might be nearing the end, Denny leaves Washington D.C. and is flown on a biplane to a remote cabin free of modern conveniences.
Things quickly go off the rails once Denny loses contact with the outside world. Yet, by placing Denny in isolation, Goldblatt dodges the more traditional rites of premature mourning. Death is coming either way, but the author finds new routes to explore that reality, one in which Denny hopes not to be present. There’s a smart and complicated parallel between Denny’s own struggle to thrive in her new environment and her father’s apparent acceptance of his mortality. The daughter chooses to hide away from the stark realities of life by attempting to embrace the elements, sometimes she almost hopes to succumb to them, whereas the father recognizes there’s no running from his looming fate. At times, it seems they share a similar death wish.
Told in first-person, Denny’s stream of consciousness is contrastingly critical and vaudevillian. Goldblatt’s prose thrives on pithy one-liners and lucid moments of defamiliarization. The humorous voice does wonders for the pacing, but at times Denny’s in-the-moment gags feel a bit too on the nose. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, even if creative enough to bring to life a Hollywood legend hallucination, being so sharp at every possible moment. Although, this consistent clarity is useful in terms of character development. Late in the novel, at a pivotal moment, Denny thinks:
“And at the hot center of this fight, when I could barely breathe, I noted that there had been a distinct lack of confrontation in my life. It’s almost biblical, isn’t it? How I, toasted so gently in the oven of the suburbs, was forced to climb a mountain in order to see the conflagration with my own eyes?”
There is of course some irony here given Denny’s situation back home, but odds are no one would have this going through their mind at the climax of a physical altercation. Regardless, such instances offer insight into Denny’s own grappling with her privilege. Going off the grid is in some ways a selfish challenge, a chance for Denny to reckon with her own soft upbringing, as well as a transparent means of escapism.
The wooded sanctuary proves to take Goldblatt’s narrative in some esoteric directions even if for Denny it ends up only a temporary solution. After all, one can only escape for so long. Hard Mouth manages an offbeat expedition while also bringing a one-of-a-kind dark humor to the page. Evading the predictable, Goldblatt wanders through the momentary and unanticipated emotions of knowing the worst is coming, and suggests that even if bad decisions are made along the way, there might be self awareness waiting on the other side.
By Amanda Goldblatt
Published August 13, 2019
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com