cover image The Hunt Club

The Hunt Club

Bret Lott. Villard Books, $23 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50014-5

The publisher calls Lott's fertile new novel both a mystery and a thriller. Whatever its genre, the book represents a departure in form for this author of four literary novels (Reed's Beach, etc.), two story collections and a memoir. There's no departure in theme or tone, however, as 15-year-old narrator Huger Dillard comes of age in a crucible of fear fired by the discovery of a headless, partially skinned corpse on his family's tract of wild South Carolina land. Lott skillfully explores the penumbra of family-centered despair that has shadowed his previous work, and does so in the loamy prose that has won him praise. Huger finds the body while acting as a guide, along with his ""Unc,"" to a group of physicians from Charleston--the Hunt Club of the title. Within hours, Huger's life is threatened and his mother kidnapped, apparently to force Unc to sell the family land to those doctors. Lott works a tight, complex plot, however, and reveals only incrementally the link between the corpse and that conspiracy, which masks further conspiracies involving illegal drugs, insurance fraud and buried treasure. Devastating family secrets are exposed, as well. Lott's characters are as vital as heartbeats, as is his sense of place, but he occasionally chafes against the genre form. The novel's central sequence--a chase in the woods--goes on too long, and too many questions are answered by villains who can't stop talking. Lott's motifs, particularly regarding human fallibility (Unc is blind, there's a deaf and dumb girl, etc.) are too visible. Suspense runs high, however, and as a portrayal of a boy's acceptance through suffering of a world riven by sin but grounded in love, the book is moving, memorable, even masterful. Author tour. (Mar.)