Review

In the City of Shy Hunters

by Tom Spanbauer



New York in the 1980s is more than just the setting of this novel
of philosophical outcasts, it's a central character. We arrive with
Will Parker who may be an insecure young man from Wyoming, but he
is already aware that if the gods know you're searching for the
Holy Grail, they won't let you find it. So Will has come to New
York, "not-searching" for his childhood friend and lover, Charlie
2Moons. Right away his new friend Ruby steals his wallet, because,
according to his other new friend True Shot, "you asked him
to…When you don't want something as much as you didn't want
your wallet to get stole that means only one thing."

Will moves into a cat-piss-soaked apartment on the East Side and
gets a job as a waiter in a trendy restaurant that his
fellow-waiter Fiona calls the Cafe Cauchemar (French for
nightmare). Fiona talks a mile a minute through her cleft
palate-scarred, bright red lips, lacing her training on the
espresso machine with her passionate view of life. Her true love is
performance art, her "Absolute Ultimate Idol" an artist named
Argwings Khodek, who happens to be a huge Black drag queen also
called Rose, who happens to live with his three dogs in an
apartment above Will.

Welcome to Spanbauer country, a land of sex, drugs, coincidence,
and sideways philosophy. Trying to summarize even the characters in
this sprawling novel is like trying to summarize the Bible.
Everyone has a sordid past and at least two names.

Between bouts of seriously decadent partying, Will reveals in
flashback the lurid details of his white-trash childhood. We meet
his older sister Bobbie, a tough-talking tomboy until she turns 14
and abandons Will for the privacy of her bedroom. We meet Will and
Bobbie's father Cotton, a sadistic rodeo performer who climbs into
Bobbie's bed at night and mostly ignores the rest of the family;
Will's mother has long ago succumbed to depression, denial, and
cigarettes. And we meet Charlie, an Indian kid growing up in his
mom's double wide trailer/beauty parlor. Charlie 2Moons introduces
12-year-old Will to trick riding, rolling cigarettes, blood
brotherhood, and sex.

The themes and narrative voice of this novel are similar to
Spanbauer's earlier work, THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH THE MOON.
He even reuses the image of the killdeer, the bird that fakes being
wounded in order to draw prey away from her nest. "She leads you
away from what you really want. Then, after she's betrayed you, the
killdeer bird leaves you alone in the middle of the desert in the
twilight, she abandons you to what you've been looking for all your
life. Yourself."

If freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, then these
folks are truly unchained. As Bobbie puts it, "Ain't one of us fits
in anywhere. And we never will." Apparently, this frees them to
undertake the Journey and partake of as much sex and drugs as
possible along the way. Unfortunately, it doesn't free them from
the early days of AIDS, which dutifully takes its toll on Will's
New York friends.

Spanbauer breaks as many rules as his characters do. His
descriptions can be simple and effective, as in this one from a
particularly violent scene: "The black dress on Mother in the
unrelenting sun was a dark hole in the morning." He repeats certain
phrases dozens of times in the book, almost as punctuation. The
one-sentence paragraphs establish a certain rhythm, but in a
500-page novel, it begins to seem a little over the
top. 

The novel travels back and forth between Will's unfortunate
childhood and his quest in New York, where he ultimately redeems
himself in mythic battles against white patriarchy and performance
anxiety. In the funniest chapter, the restaurant staff plays a
variation of musical chairs, with the loser having to strip for the
rest of them after hours.

Guess who loses. IN THE CITY OF SHY HUNTERS, like the city it's
named for, is daring, original, outrageous, and not for the
faint-of-heart.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol (ezn1@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

In the City of Shy Hunters
by Tom Spanbauer

  • Publication Date: June 9, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Hardcover: 504 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802116914
  • ISBN-13: 9780802116918