Book review: The Honk and Holler Opening Soon (by Billie Letts, author of Where the Heart Is)
The Honk and Holler Opening Soon is set in the small, ‘nowhere’ town of Sequoyah, Oklahoma. More specifically, it focuses on a roadside diner originally intended to be called The Honk and Holler, but known as the Honk and Holler Opening Soon because the owner made a drunken phone call to the company tasked with making the roadside sign, and so consequently, 14 years later, the diner is still known as The Honk and Holler Opening Soon. An eclectic cast of characters work or dine at the Honk, and it is their interrelated stories that drive the narrative.
In terms of our main characters, there is Caney Paxton, the 40ish paraplegic Vietnam vet who is the owner of the diner and who has never left its walls since he was wheeled in after leaving the hospital.
There is also MollyO, his surrogate mother who waitresses at the Honk and pines after her runaway teenage daughter.
Then there is Vena Takes Horse, a homeless Crow woman who rocks up just before Christmas with a three-legged dog she rescued off the highway. Vena muscles her way into a job by showing her skills as a revenue-garnering carhop.
There is also the sweet-natured Bui Khanh, a Vietnamese refugee looking to find a way to bring his wife to America. Bui, who becomes the Honk’s handyman, is also homeless and he sneaks into a local church at night for shelter.
Finally, there is an assortment of other folks who pepper the story with local colour, problems and humour – many elderly, some rather nosy, a few with disabilities, and at least one downright dangerous. These men and women come to the Honk daily for coffee, meals and gossip, and the narrative thus never lags or lacks for storylines.
Why I like it
Letts’s writing is imaginative and skilful. She knows how to tell a story you will care about, but her writing is far from sentimental and she doesn’t wallow in anything – the pace is steady and you are quickly caught up in a handful of interconnected plots. And it’s certainly refreshing to read a story set in Oklahoma.
Thinking about it, you know what else is refreshing? Reading a story wherein none of the A- or even B-level characters is described as beautiful, stunning, handsome, gorgeous, rugged or even pretty. There is just a host of ordinary-looking people whose appearances affect very little about their lives, yet they still have stories worth telling. I like it.
I think what I perhaps loved most about the novel, aside from its humour, is the way that Letts avoids writing cheese while at the same time refrains from writing soul-destroying flint. She describes the dire – people at the bottom of society, desperate situations, all-too-familiar personal tragedies, and some really cheap, Slumsville settings – while still managing to impart a sense of optimism. She does not shy away from describing cruelty, darkness and hardship, and yet cruelty is always ameliorated by kindness, darkness by light, and hardship by hope. Letts somehow leaves the reader feeling that their eyes have been opened to the world and yet they have also been affirmed in the goodness of humanity and the possibility of redemption. I think that rather masterful.
An extract to help convince you to read it
Here is one of my favourite passages, written just after MollyO’s daughter Brenda once again runs away (having first, of course, stolen cash from her mother), which showcases Letts’s humour as well as her heart:
MollyO came on to work the next morning, weepy and exhausted. She hadn’t slept for twenty-eight hours, but it wasn’t the first time she’d spent a night walking the floor in despair.
When Caney found out what Brenda had done, he was so furious that he raged around the rest of the morning, his anger splattering like bacon in hot grease. He banged around the kitchen, slamming skillets onto burners, hacking the meat cleaver into the cutting board, knocking cans of corn and peas from the pantry shelves and cussing onions and eggs as if he’d found them sneaking around telling lies.
But once, when MollyO came back to the sink to wash her hands, he grabbed her around the waist and buried his head in her chest, held her without a word, then rolled away and smacked five pounds of ground beef, punishment, perhaps, for whatever grief that cow had brought to its mother.
I really loved this book. It has a strong sense of place and is funny, imaginative, tense, and heart-breaking and heart-warming at turns. It has a cast of interesting and truly individualistic personalities that you quickly come to own as your own, and so follow their stories with interest and concern. I read it flat-out it was that fun, engaging and easy to read.
Have any of you read it? What did you think?
Someone said to me the other day that I should try writing book reviews. It’s not something I’ve ever really concerned myself with (not since the days of forced book reviews in high school). But I do find myself wanting to share with others when I’ve read a book I really enjoyed. I’ve never really kept up with the latest books, so any book reviews I do stand little chance of being current. But good books surely stand the test of the time, so I won’t worry myself with that. Hence this review of a book written 15 years ago! If you haven’t read it before, I hope you can lay your hands on a copy and that you too will have some fun hours of reading.
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