cover image Toad


Katherine Dunn. MCD, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-60232-1

Dunn (1945–2016) leaves readers a throwback to the 1960s counterculture scene in this pungent precursor to her 1989 National Book Award finalist Geek Love. Sally Gunnar, middle-aged and living alone with her goldfish, reminisces about her student days spent on the periphery of the cool kid scene at a small liberal arts college in the northwest. She relives moments steeped in magic mushroom dust and unwashed bodies with her friend Sam, who rarely goes to class and never follows the rules. She looks with disgust, not on his filthy student digs or the horsemeat he serves, but on his circle of friends as they party and pose. She is filled with rage at their inauthenticity and the way they seem to themselves not exist unless someone is looking—except Sam. And then Carlotta appears. She and Sam move to a farm, then to Montana, and eventually tragedy strikes. Sally goes through a string of lovers, slits her wrists, and breaks the law with a violent act, all in an attempt at some kind of self-realization. The story has moments of hilarity, its raw prose fresh with unpretty evocations of stale rooms and bad poetry. It amounts to a sobering look at the reality of what one’s glory days actually entailed, shot through with the unmistakable undertow of pain and self-loathing. (Nov.)