Book review: Toad, by Catherine Dunn


I first read “Geek Love,” Katharine Dunn’s novel, shortly after it was published in 1989. Now it felt like a classic, at the time, reading the novel felt like watching Todd Browning’s 1932 horror movie “Freaks” in the back room of a questionable club In it, her lights are kept low so that you do not see things that are difficult to forget.

Dan was not afraid to stare into the shadows. “Geek Love” puts freaks and self-proclaimed monsters front and center. The novel tells the history and hardships of the Binewski clan, the carnival folk whose parents, Al and Crystal Lil, create their own strange show. Using a prenatal diet of hallucinogens, velocity, and radioactive isotopes, the couple produces their mutant offspring: conjoined twins; Aqua Boy hunchbacked a seemingly typical kid with telekinesis; Stillborn infants displayed in jars.

“Geek Love” was Dunn’s third published novel – after “Attic” (1970) and “Truck” (1971) – but there was more. While working in Portland bars and restaurants to support herself and her young son, Dunn wrote a novel called Todd. Harper & Row, the publisher of “Attic” and “Truck”, bought the book in 1971, but ultimately rejected it. (She was told: “Nobody in this book is loved!”) Despite the interest of other publishers and years of review, the book never found a home. In 1979, a final round of rejection caused Dunn to put the novel aside for good.

In 2016, Dunn died of lung cancer at the age of 70. Her legacy seems to be one cult novel and much loved. “Geek Love” was a National Book Awards finalist, selling over half a million copies and never out of print.

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After her death, Dunn’s son, along with many friends and admirers, including editor Naomi Hoffman, pushed to print Dunn’s unpublished novels. Hoffman discovered “Toad” in the Dunn Primary Archives at Lewis and Clark College, along with a related short story, “The Poet in Residence,” published in the New Yorker in 2020. Another story, “The Teaching of Mrs. R.” It just appeared in the fall issue of the Paris Review.

This month, the “toad” finally appeared in the world.

“Toad” is a faint and scary novel. It’s exhilarating, often unsettling, and compelling in its own way like Dan’s most famous work. The narrator is Sally Gunnar, and appears to be in the position of young Catherine Dunn. They share a birthday, an obsession with Reed College (Dun attended Reed with a full scholarship, but never graduated), a history of poverty and depression. (Although Sally describes her “enormous ugliness,” period photographs depict Dunn as a cynical beauty.) The story drifts back and forth between Sally as a 20-year-old student and her much older “pure spinster” self, who remembers her miserable college friends,” Bohemian whores” like herself.

A 1979 rejection letter commented that Toad “seems to be essentially autobiographical, by which I mean that things don’t exist for any reason other than that they happened.” Another editor complained that the story was “too concerned with things”. Many of these meticulously observed express inequality in gender relations, along with details of major depression, mental breakdown, and attempted suicide. Her focus always makes Toad feel a bit ahead of his time, reminiscent of the work of Susanna Kaysen, Elena Ferrante and Elizabeth Wurzel, while evoking her blunt energy and mid-20th century Pikarsk language: “Sometimes a Great Idea,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Confederation of Sons,” “Fear.” From flying”, even “on the road”.

As in “Attic” and “Truck,” you can see Dunn turning toward what would become her central concern: strangers; social isolation; Women’s survival in a world where the game is rigged and potentially deadly. Dunn knew very well that fake game. As Molly Crabapple notes in her introduction, Dunn grew up penniless. Poverty is omnipresent in her work – in “Toad”, it’s almost a character in itself – and one can sense it hovers over Dunn’s young adult life as well. Like the “Attic” heroine – a working-class drop-out named K Dunn – she had a criminal conviction for passing a bad check. Later, she would earn a living as a pond shark. “Her mother had a history of violence,” said her son, Elie Dabalonia. Dunn’s younger brother recalls, “My mom would hit her hard with a broomstick, and she would walk to the door. She wasn’t running. She took a look, like, ‘I’m not going to let this get to me.'” When Dunn was seventeen, she left the house for good.

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In “Toad,” Dunn gleefully deconstructs the counterculture of the 1960s: squalid student ghettos where wealthy white children play poor entertainers. rampant misogyny disguised as free love; meals of brown rice and burnt horse meat; Lots of bad sex. But she shows sympathy for her young self in the shadows, as when middle-aged Sally contemplates “the delirium of discipline which drives every female college student into longer discussions later in the dormitories: past fatigue, past pleasure, even, just because she was not allowed to stay up until such time as Late in her father’s house. Freedom is amazing, exhilarating, and addictive. It must be used and abused.”

Dunn maintains her harshest characterizations of the golden hippie couple, Sam and Carlotta—especially Sam, one of those charismatic young men who, despite his lack of physical charm, has a loyal following among his fellow students. Sam pens papers with titles like “Wittgenstein: The Effect of Swiss Cheese on Rye,” throwing out the kind of nonsense that middle-class Long Island kids did (and probably still do) when they dreamed of Arcadian life. But then he connects with Carlota, a kind and tough California hippie goddess. She becomes pregnant, the two move into a far-away house, and the humorous tone of the novel darkens gently, resulting in a terrifying scene when Sally goes to visit them and their newborn.

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Despite its cunning humor and pleasant detachment, “Toad” is a very sad story, not an epitaph for lost youth, but an exorcism. Reflecting on her time with Sam and Carlotta, Sally says, “These things don’t make me dazed anymore; I have the excuse of time, which allows me to despise my youth without ever being responsible for most of it.” And later in the novel, “A lot of the desperate things I did in my youth were fight belonging to a collective identity…all the pain and hate—it kept me afloat.”

After completing Dan’s beautiful, sad, and almost lost novel, I was grateful that Sally, like its young author, perhaps, was able to find solace in telling her story.

Elizabeth Hand’s latest novel is The Hokolwa Road.

Introduction by Molly Crabapple

Farrar, Strauss and Giroud. 334 p. $.28

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