Upstate New York, beginning with Buffalo/Niagara Falls, and running through Rochester, Syracuse, due East to Utica, and then up Northeast to Troy and Schenectady, lost most of its industries in the early to mid 1960s, as mill towns lost their mills, and leather tanneries, one of the area’s major employees, closed when New York State decided to fine the owners of these factories for the pollution newly discovered in the waters there; those waters were the very reasons why these factories were there in the first place. So the State of New York, which refused to help pay for any of the cleanup, helped to create a double disaster, environmental and employment. Most tanneries closed, as they couldn’t possibly absorb the cost of the cleanup; all sorts of dyes and chemicals had been dumped into the waters across Northern New York. So Upstate New York was probably the first part of America to become a kind of shadowy wasteland, where those who could find jobs left, and where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t, stayed. (We were also being sold on the idea of ‘community’ at the same time, and, of course, leaving involved ripping up roots that had been in these towns, and many smaller ones, for generations. What remained became a haven of drug usage, dealing, and small town but increasingly frightening violence: this is Joyce Carol Oates territory; she grew up in this area and most of her fiction is also based upon this part of the country.
Another very common, if less known, ‘industry’ in Upstate New York , are a large number of Spiritualist camps/communes, communities of nearly completely self-sufficient fundamentalist Christians, which have been in this area for well over a hundred fifty years, and they are still up there. (A friend of my mother’s, a very worldly Washingtonian, much involved in the social and artistic life of Greater Washington, went there to die, as her mother had before her). Samantha Hunt’s new novel, Mr. Splitfoot, takes place in the area around Schenectady and Troy, two of the bleakest and deadest towns in Upstate New York, and Hunt has studied and absorbed these spiritualist communities and understands the underlying drug culture and violence, just as Oates does. It’s very fertile territory for her superb novel. And Hunt also writes with a kind of hip hop style, making it very contemporary, both a spoof of these spiritualist camps and a ghost story, a realistic book, and a novel full of metaphors and of con men and swindlers, all in one book, no mean feat.
A semi-sane “Father”, some kind of alleged Protestant fundamentalist leader, takes in stray children up to the age of l8, and cleverly has learned how to work with social agencies in Upstate New York to get enough funding for food, basic shelter and the like for these abandoned children; at l8, they must move on as funding stops as the children are no longer minors. Two of the most fascinating characters in recent literature, Nat and Ruth, live in this house, and the Father is by turns punitive, fanatical, and sheerly mad. Nat and Ruth, who consider themselves sisters (interesting ideas on gender from Hunt), eventually meet a self-proclaimed con man, who teaches them how to ‘make contact with the dead’ (Nat may or may not have some natural psychic abilities) as a way to earn lots of money for the three of them, and, by taking Nat and Ruth on the road, if you will, they are able to escape Father’s house/iron rule , set up their own apartment, and the like, and Ruth is shrewd enough to marry the con man, so that they can then adopt Nat. (Working every available system, private or governmental, is a perfect spoof on social work and the laws of this country). Of course, in the end, we will have to learn the identity of the con man, and why Ruth comes back years and years later to bring her niece , on a walking trip through Upstate New York, back to the wilds of the countryside…..For those who like an old fashioned almost ghost story, Hunt gives you that; for those who may be seriously interested in Spiritualism, and in the spirit world, Hung offers that, too. Oddly, though, this novel is very, very moving, and the relationship between Nat and Ruth, and the power of their love from childhood on, is particularly beautiful. Hunt suggests that the power of love is the strongest force in the universe, and that its power can/does bring back the dead at least in spirit, and who are we to deny that such may be the case?
Working on these numerous levels and parallel tracks, Amber Hunt, whose real Mr. Splitfoot (an avatar of The Devil, of course) resonates mightily in the times in which we currently live, has written the biggest surprise novel of the year to date: it’s impossible to resist both the charms and the seriousness of Mr . Splitfoot, which, skeptical though you may be, grabs you and keeps you in its beautifully crafted, often subtle, hands, those of the most gifted Amber Hunt.