I have been promising a review of Paula Young Lee’s Deer Hunting in Paris for what seems like forever, and I apologize for taking so long. Part of it was thinking my way through to what I thought exactly or critically. I loved it and found it intensely quotable; on the other hand I found the tone of some passages a little frenetic, full of word- drunk riffing, perhaps fueled by a deconstructionist lit grad student’s love of multiple meanings.
Curiously, my friend Gerry’s positive but slightly critical review here, which faults her editor for not disciplining her tendency to wander, made me realize that I like such digression! I decided my best way to give you a glimpse of her work was to summarize, quickly, then quote. Read Gerry, then my selections, and you will know whether this sort of book is for you.
Deer Hunting in Paris is called a memoir, though Gerry thinks of it as a journal. Its double subtitles stretch to a Victorian length: “A memoir of God, guns, and game meat; how a preacher’s daughter refuses to get married, travels the world, and learns to shoot.” Paula Young Lee is an ethnic Korean preacher’s daughter from Maine, who when the book opens is living in Paris, France, from which she travels regularly to Paris Maine and Wellesley Massachusetts, to hunt with her boyfriend.
The book progresses gradually from her childhood through her relationship with her boyfriend (a contrast to her in every way, Republican to her Democrat, wanting to get married while she doesn’t, country to her city), while describing her education as a hunter. Meanwhile, she riffs compulsively about everything from the nature of hunting to cookbooks to the amazing hilarious Maine sellers’ newsletter Uncle Henry’s and the nature of writing. Some of her observations are serious, some inspired, and some silly, which doesn’t mean they’re not fun.
Each of these are best demonstrated by quotes. Silly? From Uncle Henry’s, a few examples of ads :”I have an unknown sex bearded dragon… Arthritic salmon with flies in box… 3 year old running walker female trained on coyotes cold nose will run nonstop parents were cat dogs… gaggle of running gravelys too old to pull the straps too old to walk behind.” Or her quotes from the index of an 1830 cookbook implausibly titled The Cook Not Mad: “BEDBUGS, to keep clear of; COOKIES, nice that will keep good three months; FEMALES’ DRESS, to put out when on fire.” (I want that book!)
On the writing life: “I wasn’t looking for love, drugs, yoga classes, or any other ‘girl’ narratives attached to stories about free spirits traveling alone. When your trips abroad are being paid for by your father/divorce settlement/ publisher, you’re not free. You’re expensive.”
Pure riffing? How about this one on Squirrel Nutkin? “The death of mice, moles, and minnows don’t get most folks riled up about animal cruelty, especially since cute fluffy squirrels are doing the killing. So what if they’re offering up lesser animals as sacrifices? It’s the only way that the owl won’t eat them, for the powerful are blessed by God, and they keep their wealth by doing His will. Only a nut rejects a perfectly profitable system that forces the poor to beg for food and pay a hideous price for the privilege. Hey ho… Nutkin! He’s a red-headed rebel, a leader of the autonomous collective, a socialist- communist- Nazi- anarchist- terrorist- tree- hugger out to sow chaos in Eden. Wherefore he’s the Devil’s handmaiden.”
Above all, and past all the silliness, she is drop-dead serious about the nature of hunting. “I now insist on eating birds and mammals, preferably wild ones shot by the man I love but won’t marry, their bodies made into meat by our hands joined together. I don’t feel guilty about it, sez the girl for whom a bee sting is lethal. Death is the promise. It is an intelluctable truth, for Nature is a murderous mother offering food every where we look… I am hungry. Such is the human condition. We hope and despair, rejoice and revile, celebrate and curse the profane absurdity of being apes rigged up in angels’ wings.”
“Angels don’t eat. Apes covet meat.”
Maybe I love it because I am a discursive, digressive, riffing writer myself. But I do, and I am liking it better even as I mine the text for quotes. I’d hunt with her any time, and will look forward to anything she writes.