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A Review of "The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter"

Is it obvious that the only books I seem to review anymore are the ones I got for free on Kindle First?  A little?  Shoot.

Well, this time around, the freebie was The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, a terrific character study that loses a bit of atmosphere the further along it goes, but remains gripping nonetheless.  The story follows the intertwining lives and friendships of the titular Hugo, a boxer from Montana, and Mark Westerly, a reporter who has been covering Hugo ever since he first started training. This being a character piece, the plot is light - basically all that happens is you see Hugo grapple with his downtime after he's forced into retirement.

What appeals to me most about the story is its gentle contemplation on pursuit and failure. Hugo and Mark are both guys chasing after fulfillment and never quite grasping it.  Lessons are learned, but it's unclear if either is any closer to satisfying the implacable quest for happiness.

A story like this lives and dies by its tone.  Fortunately, Craig Lancaster, the author, shot for something a few shades north of depression.  It's not a gloomy book, but it has the perfect feeling of downtempo monotony that lies under the surface of all failure.  Early scenes perfectly capture the "what next" feeling of waking up the morning after a disaster.  The slow build up in scenes immediately following likewise hits you with familiar notes of desperation, confusion, and malaise.

Lancaster is smart not to dump all of that on you at once, though.  The jabs are parceled out in neat and tidy pockets so you stay invested without carrying too much of an emotional burden from page to page.  Through it all, the friendship between the two main characters brings much needed levity and hopefulness so that it never becomes melodramatic or caustic.

My one big complaint, since I have to have one, is that the narrative is occasionally broken up by a parallel, fictional autobiography from Hugo himself.  Early on, he suggests that he might write one, and from that point on until the end, you get excerpts from it every 2-3 chapters. Inevitably, there's a "and that's the story you just finished reading" moment where they revisit his plan to write a book.  Quite frankly, that trope will never not make me cringe - it's on the list with "it was all a dream!" and "there's some things that will just always be a mystery..." as one of the worst three ways to end a book.

Worse, those excerpts take on a totally different tone and voice that are far inferior to the rest of the novel.  Admittedly, it makes sense - these are the times when Hugo is speaking, so you expect a contrast.  But the quality of the writing feels a little too authentic - it's quite literally a Grade C, mass market biography interrupting the Grade A character piece you're trying to read.  The entire conceit would've worked better if it was just a casual aside during one of their conversations.  ("I think I might write a book." "Oh, yeah?  Maybe I'll help. Say, you want to go grab a beer?")

I was overjoyed to read Hugo Hunter over the last few weeks.  The last few books I'd started before it were various thrillers that reminded me why I stopped reading fiction altogether a few years back.  Even the best of them, Terms of Use, can't present a believable character to save its life.  It's hard for me to feel invested in the action - no matter how intense - if all I'm thinking is, "None of these are real people."

Hugo Hunter is the perfect antidote - something believable, grounded, and ultimately hopeful.  I definitely recommend it.

My Rating: 4.5 / 5

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