Amanda Goldblatt’s forthcoming debut novel, Hard Mouth, follows Denny, short for Denise, a twenty-something woman and only child who has been watching her father battle cancer for ten years. Narrated in the first person, the novel takes us through Denny’s emotions—or lack thereof—as she recalls the original diagnosis in high school and now the return of his illness in present day. Goldblatt’s writing is sharp and to the point, getting us into the mind of a narrator that at times seems almost sociopathic in her lack of empathy and desire for isolation.
Amanda GoldblattHard Mouth
Counterpoint Press, 2019
Denny, after her father’s first diagnosis, is unable to connect emotionally with anyone in the real world, or even figure out how to feel feelings, and so she acquires “stress-related heartburn” and an “imaginary friend” named Gene. “Gene was styled lightly, it seemed, on a failed character actor from the twentieth century,” says Denny, “a fat man who played sheriff and dad, judge and dupe.” Throughout the novel, Gene comes and goes, and though Denny knows he’s imaginary, she can’t quite control how or when he appears. She says, “Pop’s first diagnosis had pushed the envelope of fine. Gene was a way through to something else. Without him, I was inert, forced to be everything I was.” Gene provides an outlet for Denny, a way for her subconscious to speak to her, and through Gene, Goldblatt allows us some insight into Denny’s character, showing that she does in fact have empathy, thought it’s buried somewhere deep and difficult to get at. At times, Denny’s narration feels overly self-aware, but in many ways, it’s not at all, as she buries her feelings and attempts to escape.
After her father’s most recent diagnosis, in which he decides not to seek out treatment, Denny decides to run away. She rents a house in the woods, making it impossible for anyone to reach her, and leaves without even a word to her parents. Goldblatt does a fantastic job at having her character walk the line between extreme empathy and a complete lack thereof, showing the complexities involved in grief. On the one hand, Denny’s abandonment of her dying father and grieving mother is cruel. She leaves them without any warning or goodbye, evoking a sense of profound carelessness and selfishness. On the other hand, though, her desire to leave without word, placing herself in isolation in the woods with the knowledge that she herself might die without any real wilderness skills, reveals a shocking inability to deal with a sense of overwhelming grief and a need to remove herself from it entirely. Alone in the cabin for the first time, Denny thinks, “If it’s now I die … well, then—all the better.” By removing Denny from society and taking her away from the immediate reality of her father’s illness and coming death, Goldblatt explores new ways to deal with grief, and through moments like this, subtly shows the reader that Denny is not unfeeling. In turn, we are able to empathize with our seemingly unempathetic narrator.
Denny’s life of isolation takes a turn when she finds an injured cat that she nurses to health, and then another turn when a man, Haw, shows up to fix the cabin after a flood and begins to play house with her. Though Denny takes care of the feral cat, she claims, “The cat was not my pet. I was its nurse. I regarded this as luck; utility need not involve the heart.” She stitches the cat up and administers pain killers. She feeds the cat and looks out for its safety, and when she’s caught in a flood, she reacts with a sense of motherly urgency when she spots the cat away in the distance. When Haw arrives, though she allows him to stay and reluctantly welcomes the presence of another human, it’s through the cat that Goldblatt really shows readers Denny’s ability to care for another being. The first time we see real, raw emotion from Denny is after Haw shoots the cat. She attacks Haw, almost in a fit of animal rage. “Pain can feel like immortality,” she thinks, lunging at him without any care for herself. Though her love for the cat is evident earlier on, it is in this moment that the reader sees Denny exhibit true, uninhibited emotion.
Goldblatt’s writing is smart, witty, and engaging. Denny’s narration is quick-paced, making for a captivating read, and Goldblatt successfully and with care shows us the complicated and oftentimes confusing manifestations of grief.