The Love Hunter
Jon Hassler’s third novel, The Love Hunter, is an attempt to explore the moral dilemma that Christopher MacKensies finds himself facing. Chris’s best friend, Larry Quinn, who has been a strong and vigorous man, is entering into the last stage of a degenerative disease. No longer able to walk or support himself and racked by pain, he has become deeply depressed. Once an idealist, he has become bitter; a firmly rational man, he is driven by pain to fits of irrationality. Sometimes, because of his dependence on others, he becomes petulant and trying. Believing that Larry would prefer death to the grim future that the disease makes inevitable, Chris considers the idea of a mercy killing, but the moral issue of justification is clouded by the fact that Chris has fallen in love with Larry’s wife, Rachel, and she has confessed her love for Chris. At the same time, she loves her husband, and she tells Chris that they cannot be lovers as long as Larry is alive.
Chris is unable to distinguish his own need for Rachel and his desire to release Larry from the inexorable progress of disease. Once, when Larry becomes so irrational as to require hospitalization, Rachel turns to Chris for comfort, and for the first and only time she goes to bed with him. This experience drives Chris into making a decision. Larry must die, and Chris begins to plan the murder. Uncertain from the start that he will be capable of carrying out the plan, he nevertheless proceeds to set it in motion. The novel revolves around the working out of this plan and Chris’s doubts and justifications.
The situation Hassler sets up promises much, not only in the way of suspense and in the opportunity to examine the dimensions of human emotions and need where people are forced to operate within the strictures of moral behavior, but also in the illumination of the darker regions of the human psyche. Unfortunately, the novel provides neither suspense nor illumination.
From the beginning, the story is implausible as Hassler fails to provide his hero with a believable plan for a murder that will appear to be accidental.
In the beginning of the friendship, when they were young high school teachers in Owl Brook, Chris and Larry had been hunting companions, and during the season had spent long hours together every week on the lake in a duck blind. Even after they had separated, each to move to a different graduate school, they held a yearly reunion in order to hunt together. After graduate school, both men had come to the state college in Rookery, where only Larry’s illness had interrupted their shared pursuit of game.
Because of their shared hunting experiences and because of a dream in which Chris sees himself pushing and holding Larry’s head down under the green algae-laden waters of the lake, Chris makes a plan to take Larry on a hunting trip which will provide Chris with the opportunity to drown Larry. Instead of a nearby lake or even a place familiar to them, Chris proposes a hunting camp in a remote and rugged spot in the Canadian wilderness. Chris’s action lacks credibility, but even more implausible is Larry’s response. Nowhere does Hassler explain what possible arguments could have been used to persuade a man racked by pain, unable to stand or walk, incontinent, and without a healthy muscle left in his body, to undertake a three-hundred-mile ride to the wilds of a primitive hunting lodge to wade through marshes and reeds in order to shoot ducks. The only clue the author offers is Chris’s rationalization that Larry could only be hunting death. Nor does Hassler explain why Rachel, said to be an intelligent and sensitive woman who loves and cares for her husband, allows him to undertake such an arduous trip, which would take him out of reach of medical attention. Nor is it credible that a man of any intelligence at all would choose a place of unfamiliar terrain and uncertain conditions, a place he has never been, as the scene for the staging of a murder that must appear to result from an accident.
As improbable as the plot is, an even greater deficiency is Hassler’s failure to give credibility or depth to his characters. While they are ordinary, normal people living conventional lives, any individual life examined closely reveals the strange and deep complexities that give value to and illuminate a real work of art as opposed to the work of a technician; and while stereotypes serve well the purposes of satire, which this novel comes close to being, or the function of today’s morality plays, soap operas, which enable an audience to participate on a quick and easy level in the struggle between good and evil, what Hassler creates is something of an unfortunate and uncomfortable cross between the two.
On the one hand, Hassler says that Chris is pierced to the heart by sorrow and pity when he looks at Larry. On the other hand, what Hassler shows of Chris’s interaction with Larry is something entirely different. Chris is inconsiderate and unheeding of the sick man’s very simple needs. At one point, for example, he will not stop on the highway for Larry, although Chris knows Larry’s problems with incontinence. At another point, Chris is shown being callous in...
(The entire section is 2132 words.)