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Book Review

A Love as Mystifying as Murder

THE HUNT CLUB by Bret Lott, Villard, $23, 243 pages

March 23, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 15-year-old Huger Dillard ("You say it YOU-gee, not like it's spelled") is driving his pickup down a Carolina dirt road, his blind Uncle Leland (whom Huger calls "Unc") sitting beside him, when Unc smells blood. Literally.

Unc is the owner and proprietor of the Hungry Neck Hunt Club, 2,200 acres of "live oak and pine, dogwood and palmetto and poison ivy and wild grapes and all else," on the Ashepoo River, 40 miles south of Charleston. The members of the hunt club are the rich and famous of Charleston society: "doctors, lawyers, and what have you," as Huger describes them, "the sorts of people you see on the news for whatever reason each night, or in the paper, all of them getting honored or interviewed for one matter or the other."

The blood that turns Unc's nose belongs, in fact, to one of the members, whose body they find 20 yards off the road, its head blasted off by a couple of rounds from a shotgun. "Its hands were skinned, too, from the wrists on down . . . like skinned squirrels," notes Huger. Charles Middleton Simons is the name of the body, a plastic surgeon. "The irony here's pretty thick," observes another MD.

But the body is not the only thing that smells. Lying at the feet of the corpse is a piece of cardboard, "one whole side of a toilet-paper box, like you can pick up out back of the Piggly Wiggly." And on the cardboard, "in a girly curlicue" with black Magic Marker, is the confession of the corpse's wife, ending with a curious postscript: "Leland, can you blame me?"

Yet within 24 hours, the wife herself is dead, and Uncle Leland has disappeared. Naturally, Unc's role in the mystery requires Huger's presence, and the boy has certainly seen his share of skinned carcasses in his brief lifetime.

Ever since Unc was blinded in a house fire that killed his wife, Huger has served as amanuensis, guide, an all-purpose Huck to his uncle's older and wiser Jim. While he lives with his mother in North Charleston during the week, Huger moves out to his Hungry Neck family on the weekends: Unc, his black cook, Miss Dinah, and her deaf and dumb daughter, Dorcas.

Huger sets off on a search for the killer, along with Miss Dinah and the remarkable Dorcas, a girl of many talents as he soon discovers. The hunt, from pillar to Piggly Wiggly, takes the gang through the lowlands of privileged Charleston and its slaveholding past. White-coated doctors and rednecked troopers rub shoulders even more dislocatingly than in "Deliverance." Greed, of course, in the form of Hungry Neck real estate and international finance, is the force behind all the movement.

But the real treasure in "The Hunt Club" is the story of Huger and Unc. Bret Lott has written a beautiful romance of "Shane"-like quality, well beyond the simple, folksy image of a boy guiding a blind man through the woods of human depravity. The only disappointment is that Lott didn't trust this human mystery more.

After seven books of finely observed stories, novels and memoir (many set in similar psycho-economic terrain), Lott has set his sights on writing a thriller. At the end, if the solution to the mystery of "The Hunt Club" seems surgically grafted onto the novel, this is perhaps the price that Lott has paid for playing outside his familiar literary woods.

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