Book review: Toad, by Katherine Dunn



I first read “Geek Love,” Katherine Dunn’s breakout novel, shortly after its publication in 1989. Now seen as a classic, back then reading the novel felt like watching Tod Browning’s 1932 horror film “Freaks” in the backroom of a dubious club, its lights kept low so you wouldn’t see things you’d have a difficult time forgetting.

Dunn wasn’t afraid of staring into the shadows. “Geek Love” puts self-proclaimed freaks and monsters front and center. The novel recounts the history and hardships of the Binewski clan, carnival folk whose pater- and materfamilias, Al and Crystal Lil, create their own freak show. Using a prenatal diet of hallucinogens, speed and radioactive isotopes, the couple produce their mutant progeny: conjoined twins; Aqua Boy; a hunchback; a seemingly typical child with telekinesis; stillborn infants exhibited in jars.

“Geek Love” was Dunn’s third published novel — following “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 “Toad.” Harper & Row, publishers of “Attic” and “Truck,” bought the book in 1971, but ultimately turned it down. (“Nobody in this book is likable!” she was told.) Despite interest from other publishers and years of revision, the book never found a home. In 1979, a final round of rejections caused Dunn to set aside the novel for good.

In 2016, at age 70, Dunn died of lung cancer. Her legacy, it seemed, would be a single, much beloved cult novel. “Geek Love” was a National Book Awards finalist, sold over a half-million copies and has never gone out of print.

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After her death, Dunn’s son, along with numerous friends and fans, including editor Naomi Huffman, pushed to bring Dunn’s unpublished fiction into print. Huffman had uncovered “Toad” in Dunn’s substantial archive at Lewis & Clark College, along with a related short story, “The Resident Poet,” published in the New Yorker in 2020. Another story, “The Education of Mrs. R.,” has just appeared in the fall issue of the Paris Review.

This month, “Toad” finally made it out into the world.

“Toad” is a subdued, haunting novel. It is exhilarating, often disturbing, and as compelling in its way as Dunn’s best-known work. Its narrator is Sally Gunnar, seemingly a stand-in for the young Katherine Dunn. They share a birthday, an obsession with Reed College (Dunn attended Reed on a full scholarship, but never graduated), a history of poverty and depression. (Though while Sally describes her own “enormous ugliness,” period photos depict Dunn as a wry beauty.) The story drifts back and forth between Sally as a 20-year-old student and her much older, “clean spinsterish” self, who recalls her hapless college friends, “bohemian slobs” like herself.

A 1979 rejection letter commented that “Toad” “seems to be basically autobiographical, by which I mean that things are there not for any reason except that they happened.” Another editor complained that the story was “too minutely interested in things.” Many of these minutely observed things express the inequity of heterosexual relations, along with details of severe depression, a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt. Its focus on the quotidian makes “Toad” feel ahead of its time, reminiscent of the work of Susanna Kaysen, Elena Ferrante and Elizabeth Wurtzel, while its rude energy and language evokes mid-20th-century picaresques: “Sometimes a Great Notion,” “The Ginger Man,” “A Confederacy of Dunces,” “Fear of Flying,” even “On the Road.”

As in “Attic” and “Truck,” you can see Dunn homing in on what would become her central concerns: outsiders; social isolation; women’s survival in a world where the game is both rigged and potentially deadly. Dunn knew that rigged game well. As Molly Crabapple notes in her introduction, Dunn grew up broke. Poverty is omnipresent in her work — in “Toad,” it’s almost a character in itself — and one can sense it hovering over Dunn’s young adult life as well. Like the protagonist of “Attic” — a working-class college dropout named “K Dunn” — she had a felony conviction for passing a bad check. Later, she made ends meet as a pool shark. “Her mother had a history of violence,” her son, Eli Dapalonia, has said. Dunn’s younger brother recalled, “Mom was viciously beating her with the broomstick, and she was walking to the door. She wasn’t running. She had a look, like, ‘I’m not going to let this get to me.’ ” When Dunn was 17, she left home for good.

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In “Toad,” Dunn gleefully eviscerates 1960s counterculture: squalid student ghettos where well-off White kids play at being impoverished artists; rampant misogyny masquerading as free love; meals of brown rice and burned horsemeat; lots of bad sex. But she shows compassion for her younger shadow-self, as when the middle-aged Sally reflects on the “delirium of eluding discipline that drives each college freshman to longer, later discussions in the dormitories: past fatigue, past pleasure, even, merely because she was not permitted to stay up so late in her father’s house. The freedom is startling, exhilarating, addictive. It must be used and abused.”

Dunn saves her most scathing characterizations for the golden hippie couple, Sam and Carlotta — especially Sam, one of those charismatic young men who, despite a lack of physical charms, has a devoted following among fellow students. Sam pens papers with titles like “Wittgenstein: The Effect of Swiss Cheese on Rye,” and spouts the kind of back-to-the-land drivel that middle-class kids from Long Island did (and probably still do) when dreaming of an Arcadian life. But then he hooks up with Carlotta, a sweet yet steely California hippie goddess. She becomes pregnant, the two move to a remote homestead, and the gently satirical tone of the novel darkens, building to a horrific scene when Sally goes to visit them and their newborn child.

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For all its sly humor and cool detachment, “Toad” is a deeply melancholy story, not an elegy for lost youth, but an exorcism. Reflecting on her time with Sam and Carlotta, Sally says, “These things don’t make me wince anymore; I have the excuse of time, which allows me to despise my youth without being at all responsible for most of it.” And, later in the novel, “So many of the desperate things I did in my youth were to combat belonging to the mass identity … all the pain and hatred — it kept me afloat.”

Finishing Dunn’s beautiful, sad, nearly lost novel, I was grateful that Sally, like her young author, perhaps, was able to find solace in telling her own story.

Elizabeth Hand’s most recent novel is “Hokuloa Road.”

Introduction by Molly Crabapple

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 334 pp. $28

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