A friend explains that the world is divided into paragraph and sentence writers. A paragraph writer is like a brick mason, working with consistent materials and focused on maintaining a clean line as a wall unfolds. Building a stone wall, a sentence writer in contrast begins with a pile of rocks—clots of material formed by processes beyond human measure. In This Wide Terraqueous World, Laird Hunt is a sentence writer in whose hand the sentences turn like prisms, reframing these essays’ collective horizon. It’s a collection of dazzling stuff. Giraffes and whales. Nebraskans and Norwegians. Radium and mud. At one point, Hunt’s travels detour through Ottawa, Illinois—a space narrated in his outstanding 2021 novel, Zorrie. Here he ruminates on the town’s “ghost girls,” hired to paint radium numbers on the watches worn by American bombardiers in World War II; those girls subsequently became the aging women whose health was undone by sustained exposure to the radioactive element. Hunt’s journey is one of sentences, an extended recognition of the narrowing worlds and the tight panic that has come to know us in this moment. We seek a world measured by stolid memory and calmness, but as Hunt writes, “The world does not offer itself to us this way. . . . There we go lying alone in our bodies in the dark.” Can he gather the stones left to us there?
The essays depend in part on journeys. In the essay that gives its name to this collection, Hunt moves sentence to sentence, drawing forth the land. Time gathers space, both on map and on page. Vying with Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook, this essay is one of the great literary works focused on traveling across the country east to Providence. Hunt is headed there from Colorado to rejoin his family in their new home. Along that journey, he detours onto a gravel road that becomes mud. The car gets stuck. Remembering Willa Cather, he stops in Red Cloud and there, behind the mid-Nebraska hospitality desk, encounters a tour guide who speaks with a “silently howling singularity.” The journey turns in his mind. He “rewalks” it in memory, seeking glimpses of Indiana prairie and other things “left behind.” Another essay imagines the travels of a man who goes back to the village of his father’s origins in Norway, only to find that those origins have been completely fabricated. Through these pieces, Hunt gathers “that texture of a world that was not the world.”
The last two pieces recollect and recognize time’s approach, both past and present. In “God Bless Johnny Cash,” Hunt feels the past’s immediacy as he remembers playing the Atari game Asteroids in the moment of recognizing that his parents had grown apart. Stung with building panic, Hunt writes of the moment of recall, “I looked for the swans and geese yesterday when I went over the Waterman Bridge, but saw only cars and sky and winter grass and leafless trees and derelict buildings and deep water.” Can he make this world cohere? How does one inhabit its disintegration? “Still Life with Snow and Hammer” describes a similar moment of younger daring as he and a friend toss a hammer into the air, dodging its return to earth at the last second. The goal? To embrace the feeling of “terror and exaltation” at nearly being hit. The game continues, two-out-of-three “hits.” At least, until his mom returns home.
All these textures open to Hunt’s imagination. Sometimes they appear in fond wonder. In an essay that opens with remembrance of denim’s feel in high school life, he recalls the game of “guess the hand” that he played with his girlfriend then. As they would approach one another between classes, one would clutch a piece of candy or some other treat. They would invite the other to guess their palm’s contents. As he tells it, one time she urges him to “guess the hand.” It appears that she holds nothing. He is unsure.
“I’m holding the note you didn’t write me but should have,” she says.
He kisses her palm and walks on. She whistles. Hunt writes, “And though I didn’t know it then I know it now that what had just unfolded between us was a story entire. One whose details may wobble but will never finish being told.” In Hunt’s masterly telling, This Wide Terraqueous World spins along, sentence by sentence.
This Wide Terraqueous World
By Laird Hunt
Coffee House Press
Published March 21, 2023
Garin Cycholl’s 2022 novel, Rx, is a play on The Confidence-Man, a man practicing medicine without a license in a Dis-united States. His recent work has appeared in The Typescript, ACM, and The Dead Mule of Southern Literature.