A big bite of food’s deeper mean­ings

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Michael Schaub Schaub is a writer in Texas.

Lind­say Hunter’s first novel, 2014’s “Ugly Girls,” con­tin­ued the dark and some­times shock­ing themes she de­buted in her 2010 story col­lec­tion, “Daddy’s.” Her new novel, “Eat Only When You’re Hun­gry” (Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, $25), is just as dark as her other books but with a very dif­fer­ent pro­tag­o­nist.

Greg is a 58-year-old re­tired ac­coun­tant who lives with his sec­ond wife in West Vir­ginia. A com­pul­sive overeater who also has a drink­ing prob­lem, Greg re­sents his obese body but can’t quite bring him­self to get help for his ad­dic­tions. When his drug-ad­dicted adult son, Greg Jr., goes miss­ing, he rents an RV and heads to Florida on a quest to find him.

Hunter, who brings “Eat Only When You’re Hun­gry” to Los An­ge­les on Thurs­day, spoke with The Times from her home in Chicago.

How did the idea for this book come to you?

I took some time off to start work­ing on my next novel, and when I sat down the first morn­ing, I had two ideas. I was going to write about witches or I was going to write about Greg. And that morn­ing I was, like, “Well, I think I want to write about Greg today.” I saw him per­fectly, I saw his lone­li­ness and I saw his feel­ing of be­ing trapped in his body. He’s got these lay­ers of be­ing trapped. I could see that so clearly, and I wanted to just see what would hap­pen with him. And I wanted a lit­tle, tiny, tiny bit of grace. I wanted the book to have some sort of tiny lit­tle bit of hope for him, even if that meant him be­ing at peace with just one lit­tle thing.

Was it hard get­ting into Greg’s mind­set?

As I started, I didn’t worry, like, “Oh, I’m just this 35-year-old lady in the Mid­west writ­ing about this mid­dle-aged man who has all these ad­dic­tion is­sues.” It didn’t hit me till the mid­dle of writ­ing it — I thought, “Oh, my God! Is this au­then­tic? Are peo­ple going to read this and be, like, ‘What are you talk­ing about? You don’t know any­thing about this.’” But I feel like that’s a good thing. I didn’t go into it think­ing, “This is what a man would think.” In­stead I went into it like, “This is a hu­man be­ing that I’m going to fol­low.” At least I was be­ing true to who I saw him as, rather than this trope.

But even today, I strug­gle with food is­sues. I was anorexic in high school and in col­lege, and that was very fa­mil­iar to me, that sort of lean­ing on food stuff, hid­ing it from your­self. That was some­thing that I never ad­mit­ted to my­self that I wanted to ex­plore, but it just nat­u­rally came out.

How do you see Greg’s re­la­tion­ship with food?

I think it’s a re­ally easy, doable, tac­tile way to fill a hole. It’s a way for him to have con­trol over a moment, even though he’s com­pletely out of con­trol. In his mind, it’s a way for him to treat him­self, to re­ward him­self by fill­ing this hole. And the hole is never filled, and that’s a huge prob­lem, but it holds this power over him that he can hap­pily suc­cumb to. He’s sur­rounded by it. It’s so easy to pro­cure, es­pe­cially when he’s alone and no one’s watch­ing him. He’s not even watch­ing him­self. So I think for him it’s a way to feel tri­umph in a small moment, even if it’s very quickly fol­lowed by the low­est feel­ing. It’s a way for him to think, “All right, I don’t want to fo­cus on this emo­tion here, I’m going to fo­cus on get­ting a sack of burg­ers, get­ting some tacos, fill­ing my­self with what­ever I want to eat.” It’s free­dom to him.

Do you think that food, in par­tic­u­lar fast food and junk food, has some kind of con­trol over the psy­ches of Amer­i­cans in gen­eral?

Def­i­nitely. It’s so easy to come by, it’s so pleas­ing. It’s a very Amer­i­can thing. It’s in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion. That’s who we are. And again, it’s a way to feel re­warded, it’s a way to feel plea­sure. You know, I can’t wait for Fri­days, be­cause that’s my day to gorge on cho­co­late. [Laughs] That’s what I re­ward my­self with. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, but Fri­days, I’m, like, “Oh, I’m going to eat so much cho­co­late.” It’s so easy. And there’s all this sci­en­tific re­search that su­gar and fat change our brain chem­istry and give us this high. I think Greg is your typ­i­cal mid­dleaged Amer­i­can dude, you know?

In a lot of ways, this is a road novel; it’s a very re­al­is­tic por­trayal of food on the Amer­i­can road.

I re­mem­ber tak­ing road trips with my fam­ily, and we would stop at gas sta­tions and buy Moon Pies and Banana Flips and Yoo-Hoos. That was al­most like the point of the road trip. It tastes dif­fer­ent if you buy it at a Gas N Go and eat it when you’re driv­ing. There’s a dif­fer­ent feel­ing. It’s free­dom. I swear, it’s free­dom.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux

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