The American Voice: Your Own Private Idaho
There's Steinbeck and Salinas. Faulkner and "Yoknapatawpha." Raymond Carver and his stomping ground, the Pacific Northwest. Philip Roth and Newark. More recently, there's Annie Baker and her fictional Shirley, Vermont. And then there are the settings of Sam Hunter's plays which, if you look closely, reveal a pattern:
"An Olive Garden franchise in Pocatello, Idaho." "The inside of a weathered, paper-littered, unkempt office off of some random exit on I-90 in northern Idaho." "Lewiston, Idaho." "Northern Idaho, the present." "Various locations en route from Montana to Iowa via I-90." "A large casino on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in northern Idaho." "The windowless breakroom of a Hobby Lobby in Boise, Idaho." "The interior of a small, ranch-style house in Viola, a small town of about 700 people in northern Idaho."
"I never sit down and say to myself that I'm going to write another play that's set in Idaho," Hunter told Idaho Public Television earlier this year. "It always just sort of naturally falls there."
For anyone, of course, the thought of home carries with it a confusing mash-up of emotions and issues, chronically unresolved, where the claustrophobia and disorientation of being a teenager is complicated by the remembrance of home-cooked meals, bicycles, and hanging out. It's not surprising that Hunter, like so many writers, returns to the landscape of his youth: the soil there is fertile. When considering his plays collectively, Sam's Idaho is riddled with paradoxes, as majestic as it is oppressive, as desolate as it is unexpectedly beautiful.
In a sense, that's a fascination inherent in any treatment of "The West." Since long before and after it was settled, its open expanse has carried mystery and maddening juxtapositions. "The most splendid part of the American habitat, it is also the most fragile," wrote Wallace Stegner (the "Dean of Western Writers") in his essay Living Dry. "We found it different, daunting, exhilarating, dangerous and unpredictable, and we entered it carrying habits that were often inappropriate, and expectations that were surely excessive. ... The West has had a way of warping well-carpentered habits, and raising the grain on exposed dreams."
Hunter's plays evoke the magnetism of the west, but their landscape is distinctly, well, His Own Private Idaho. Lovingly satiric and perversely funny, his writing centers on the marginal, ubiquitous underbelly that makes up the place: characters who are eccentric but not particularly exceptional and as deeply weird as they are ordinary. His Idaho intertwines the stories of zealots and missionaries with meth-heads, carnies, avante-garde taxidermists and 650-pound men. It's an Idaho where families fail to cohere though they live in a heartland that peddles the cliché of "family values" at every opportunity. It's where the grandiose expectations of religious fundamentalism are trapped inside the windowless break room of a big box retail store. "I grew up in northern Idaho and attended a fundamentalist Christian high school while working at a local Walmart, so I guess the two experiences have always been sort of conflated for me," he said in a recent interview. Hunter's characters live in an Idaho where the divine smacks up against the banal, where their expansive worldviews create a profound disconnection to their quotidian surroundings. They're as lost within Idaho's suburban sprawl as they are within the cosmos, each one struggling with a fundamental part his or her self—whether it's religion, sexuality, ethics or a cocktail of all these things—that doesn't fit into their surroundings or daily lives.
This disconnection seems to drive the action at the center of his work: the struggle to retain faith, despite any corroborative evidence in particular, even when you have nowhere to put it. All over Sam's body of work, characters are abandoned by the church. In Norway (2009), a young queer student is kicked out of his Christian high school. In A Bright New Boise (2010), we meet Will, the newest employee at Hobby Lobby, whose association with an infamous, renegade extremist church in northern Idaho has turned him into a pariah. And in Jack's Precious Moment (2008), Bib, a born-again is excommunicated from his congregation after he draws parallels between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. "It's like everything that I've accepted as total truth suddenly doesn't make sense," he says, "and I don't even know how to live anymore."
Discovering their deepest beliefs places them in contradiction to the world, the stubborn heroes of Sam's plays are propelled by a need to re-map, to find a way to simply live; and the routes they draw are characteristically perverse. In Jack's Precious Moment, Bib looks for answers by paying a visit to the Precious Moments Inspirational Park And Chapel (home to those intolerable figurines). In I Am Montana (2008), a bitter employee at "Valumart" road-trips south to the store's annual convention armed with a suitcase of explosives. In Idaho/Dead Idaho (2008), the region's most promising young taxidermist goes to extreme lengths to deny his homosexuality and lead a normal life. When impregnating his lesbian cousin doesn't do the trick, he throws himself fully into his masterpiece: a stuffed mutant-dog-squirrel-hybrid with wings, envisioned as the centerpiece of the local casino.
"I am—really terrible at being a person," laments Bryan in The Few (2012) as he drunkenly contemplates downing a jug of anti-freeze. Editor of an inconsequential newspaper for truckers, Bryan lost a basic faith in humanity after one of his pals intentionally killed himself and a family of four in a car crash—a downward spiral that's reversed when he realizes his paper can help others. InJack's Precious Moment, Bib unfastens his seat belt on "The Octopus," a treacherous carnival ride, only to be saved from death by an alcoholic carnie, possibly his future boyfriend. But while Bryan and Bib (and many other Hunter antiheroes) work their way through to the other side of their crises, some get stuck and give in. In Five Genocides (2010), an academic writes his dissertation on major genocides of the twentieth century, ultimately opting for suicide when he develops what one character calls "an over-heightened sense of empathy," losing his faith that mankind is capable of any goodness. "Today I stood in the grocery store for two hours," he says, "realizing that the death of a culture may depend on which brand of orange juice I choose to buy." In A Permanent Image (2011), a weary husband and wife form a suicide pact, crediting a misinformed understanding of the Big Bang Theory.
But, really, the word "suicide" rings so falsely when looking at the cosmology of Sam Hunter's Idaho. The word implies selfishness and violence—qualities I wouldn't include in any lexicon of his work—so I find myself searching for some other expression that better describes the way his characters surrender, dissolve, freeze in time, or call it a day. Their death is never dramatic or vindictive so much as it is passive, almost loving. They stand up on a treacherous carnival ride. They strip their clothes off and freeze to death in the parking lot of a Best Western. They fall asleep to Christmas Carols while Nembutal courses through their veins. They stop eating. Or they eat themselves to death.
In looking back at Sam's collection of plays to date, at both the wide variety of subjects and the commonalities they share, The Whale strikes me as quintessential—though it does seem worth noting, after typing words like "quintessential" that this madly prolific guy is just barely past thirty years old. Sam writes, as he always does, with loving compassion for his decadent, sociopathic characters. I'm astonished every time I realize that each character we meet in The Whale is driven by an obsession to make good. As bleak as their Idaho may seem; for all the destruction they leave in their wake; and despite the abuse they hurl at one another, what connects these characters is an attempt to salvage some faith.
–Adam Greenfield, Director of New Play Development