When it comes to judging a book, titles can be just as deceitful as covers. With a title like F*ckface, one might expect Leah Hampton’s short story collection to be a brash set of tales rooted in hardscrabble Appalachia. While grittiness is definitely one ingredient in this debut, its strength lies primarily in its nuanced depiction of down-and-out characters trying to get by, find love, or overcome a burdensome past.
In the opening eponymous story, a dead bear carcass lies in the parking lot of Food Country, a grocery store in Robbinsville, N.C., a town so impoverished it doesn’t have the resources to remove the animal. The story’s protagonist, Pretty, is a young woman who longs to leave town and also longs for her coworker Jamie, who’s about to move to Asheville with her boyfriend. As Pretty muses: “People think I’m in the express lane, but Food Country doesn’t have express lanes. Nothing in this town does; the mountains stop everything from moving.”
“Fuckface” is the nickname of the store manager, a reclusive supervisor who spends all day locked in his office. In spite of the disdain from his employees, a small gesture of compassion shows Pretty that he is more than just a detached manager.
Most of Hampton’s protagonists are low key and maladapted to their social environment to the point that anyone who doesn’t know them well might also feel tempted to give them a dehumanized, insulting nickname. In “Devil,” an Air Force technical sergeant who is about to be deployed to Afghanistan visits his parents in Cumberland, Kentucky. A tense conversation brings to fore unresolved problems between him and his father, a stern disciplinarian. In “Frogs,” twins Frank and Carolyn sign up for a nature walk at a university research station in the mountains. Carolyn is adamant about taking “self-improvement” classes but her enthusiasm is dampened when the snotty instructor leading the group treats her condescendingly. “Are we rednecks?” she asks her brother, revealing a deeper conflict between locals and new arrivals to rural areas.
“Twitchell,” one of the strongest offerings in this collection, also deals with an all-too common dynamic in rural America, the presence of a large company that creates jobs and temporary economic prosperity at the expense of the environment and the people’s health. Protagonist Iva Joe has a lump on her breast and is asked at the doctor’s office if she ever worked for chemical company Twitchell, “the biggest employer in the county” and a repeated environmental offender. There are numerous stories about local residents who were diagnosed with cancer just as there are people like Iva Joe’s friend Margie, the wife of a Twitchell executive and a staunch defender of the company.
In spite of some less accomplished stories like “Saint,” a short memoir about losing an older brother, or “Queen,” which draws a parallel between the death of a strong mother figure and the collapse of a beehive, Hampton’s collection is a strong debut. While the stories range in tone, they are firmly grounded in the authenticity of their protagonists and Hampton’s pitch-perfect prose, alternatively humorous and evocative but always striking the right emotional chord.
Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.By Gonzalo Baeza