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Kay Boyle: The Crazy Hunter

There are some books that are very short and still cannot properly be considered as short stories but more as novels – the works of Jorge Luis Borges are an obvious example. On the other hand, there are longer works which remain essentially short stories. This work is a case in question. It is part of a collection called Three Short Novels but the second two are around 60 pages each. Even though this one is 140 pages in length, it is clearly a short story in style and that is what Boyle does best.

What’s the difference? You may well ask. Of course, there isn’t a hard and fast difference, except, perhaps, for length but there are a few features that distinguish the two. Firstly, a good novel describes a world. It is self-contained and, whether that world is the entire universe or a small village in the back of beyond, it must seem to be a self-contained world. Secondly, there must be a change, a development, a journey, a learning. Thirdly, following on from this, the hero (ine)/main character should learn, change, possibly (though not necessarily) improve. Of course, this is a massive over-simplification (books have been written on the subject and failed to come to a satisfactory conclusion) and there are numerous very fine exceptions. However, these points give an indication of what a novel has that a short story does not. Conversely, a short story is a slice of life, a corner lifted up in the world to see what is happening, a cross section of life and not life itself. It is often focused on a single event. Kay Boyle writes the latter.

This story is about a horse – the Crazy Hunter – but also about love and power and choice. Nancy Lombe is at the age when she is thinking about moving out of the family home. Her mother is rich and powerful. Her father is neither. Her mother knows about livestock and horses while her father does not. However, to assert his power, he often makes buying decisions which, in the eyes of Mrs. Lombe, are frankly stupid. His latest one is to buy a horse whose provenance and behaviour are both dubious. However, Nancy (Nan) takes to the horse, not least as she sees it in some way as allying with her father against her dominating and super-efficient mother. She puts a lot of effort into training the horse and when it is suddenly struck blind, she still persists, despite her parents’ and groom’s recommendations against doing so and despite risking getting hurt while riding him. But her mother, who likes things right and proper, is determined that the horse is a liability and yet another mistake of her husband. Accordingly, she arranges to have the horse put down, assuming that both her husband and daughter will accept this decision as sensible.

But this work remains a short story, focused on the one slice of life – the story of the horse. Boyle writes it very well – the tension between the daughter and mother and between husband and wife, as mirrored by the tension between Nana and the horse, is very well done – but, as with many short stories, I am left with the feeling that everything is incomplete.

Publishing history

First published 1940 by Knopf