When Chicago Review of Books launched our online literary magazine, Arcturus, our initial call was for work oriented in place. But the theme seemed a difficult specificity, so we dropped the focus on place-based writing. Leah Hampton’s new story collection, F*ckface, nails the Appalachian region with such precision and range it could be held up as an example of how when done well, a strong sense of place can almost become a character in itself.
Like any good story collection, Hampton’s twelve stories share thematic elements, but each are very different—texturally, yes, but in setting, too. While the stories are rooted in the Appalachians, they’re spread across different towns, often facing different regional challenges. Each shows a large range, both in Hampton’s chops and this region, creating an unapologetic yet compassionate portrayal of these Appalachian characters.
The title story opens the collection with the image of a bear carcass sitting in a grocery store parking lot, setting up the book’s strongest theme—the ongoing wrestling between nature and humans. In the opening story, the dead bear is mostly an unsightly inconvenience, staying in the parking lot as the narrator’s friend and crush prepares to move away from this town, the symbolism clear. She notes, “People think I’m the express lane, but Food Country doesn’t have express lanes. Nothing in this town does; the mountains stop everything from moving.”
Perhaps no story captures the struggle between man and nature as poetically as “Boomer,” where a state forest serviceman deals with the end of his marriage and the literal burning of the country, as wildfires roar across the region, the 2016 presidential election looming in the background. The opening line illustrates the merging of this personal and political struggle: “When it was just state forest service guys like himself putting out small brush fires, before the election, before everything burned or surrendered, there had still been dishes in the cabinet.” As the character tries to fight the fires, his wife is slowly ransacking the house, and the weaving of different external conflicts is beautifully wrought.
The following three stories, “Wireless,” “Parkway,” and “Eastman” are all especially notable, too. “Wireless” has less regional texture than most of the stories, but is one of the most compelling in its rendering of a woman affected by a traumatic event, and how her past has shaped her life. The story opens with the kind of zingy opening hook lines that seem to be Hampton’s signature, before launching into the main character reconnecting with an old friend at her high school reunion, slowly unraveling the past.
Perhaps the most difficult story to read is “Parkway,” about a park ranger whose job includes finding dead bodies in the state park she patrols. Again the struggle between man and nature is highlighted, the push and pull of humanity imposing ourselves on the land:
“Milestones and bodies. These ridgelines can’t hold them anymore. Coralis was right about people using parks for selfish reasons. We empty sorrow and trash out of ourselves into them, and now everything is harrowing up and spilling out from the boundary. I have to look away.”
“Eastman” highlights a different man versus nature conflict, as a woman who lives near a chemical plant is faced with the possibility of cancer. What makes F*ckface notable isn’t only the way Hampton sets up these conflicts in her often subtle, artful way, it’s also how she handles the tone of each story, tucking in sharp language and humor amongst the thick emotional tone—resulting in pitch perfect narratives.
While not without their own virtues, the handful of stories that follow are less noteworthy. “Frogs,” “Queen,” and “Meat” are all quieter stories—almost offering an interlude from the earlier heaviness. “Devil,” about an Air Force tech who realizes the depth of the rift between him and his parents during a visit before he’s deployed, and “Saint,” a second-person meditation on the loss of an older brother, both feel slightly out of place, narratively speaking. But they strike the same emotional cord as the other stories in the collection, and illustrate the range of Hampton’s skills as a writer.
The collection closes with “Sparkle,” about a woman who visits Dollywood with her husband’s former colleague, on whom she has a crush. It’s the exact right note to close this rich collection. Not every story here is a strong standalone, but together these twelve stories make up an impressive debut marking Leah Hampton as a writer worth watching. And Hampton sure as hell nails place.
By Leah Hampton
Henry Holt Books
Published July 14, 2020