Henry Hunt

Henry Hurt writes books that sell: “Reasonable Doubt: an Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy” cut into more than two years of his life, and he says, depended on “a hell of a research team…I could never have done it alone.”

The book was a best-seller, establishing Hurt as a world-class investigative reporter and an American writer who speaks for his generation.

“Shadrin,” the book Hurt says he likes most, is “an incredible story-one few people understand even today,” he says.

Hurt’s latest book, “Stories from the Road Less Taken” is currently on the e-shelves and promises to repeat his earlier successes.

It is a natural for Hurt, an author who shuffles competing realities like a deck of cards.

“Shadrin” is the doomed-from-the-start narrative of a Soviet defector who fled with his Polish wife, Ewa, to the United States, then went to work for Naval Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency and finally became a double agent with the CIA. Five years in, Shadrin’s street creds with the KGB are solid, and then … he disappears without a trace.

Read between the lines, and the reader learns it’s likely the company OK’d a trade: Shadrin’s cover blown by another CIA operative named Igor Orlov who gave his colleague up to the KGB in Vienna.

Why?

So the “CIA could really lock in Orlov’s bona fides with Soviet intelligence” via the sacrifice of his own colleague—one of their own.

The double-cross is Hurt’s forte, the gritty free fire zone between life as civilizing institutions imagine it for the public and the long hours men spent lost in places one wouldn’t find on any map.

Glance at the pastoral image on the cover of “Stories from the Road Not Taken,” factor in the Frostian allusion, and the reader is likely to assume Hurt’s latest effort is a kind of restorative exercise, a kinder, gentler take on existence the author managed to reclaim once he returned, much older and wiser, to his rural Virginia roots.

A book about a place where childhood memories, tradition and the beauty of nature manage to wash all that poisonous cynicism culled from urban living and international travel right out of his head.

The reader would be wrong.

And happily so.

In “Stories from the Road Not Taken,” Hurt eschews any discussion of actual agents, no Shadrin’s or Orlov’s, but moral agency drifts across every page of every tale like an inconvenient ghost—larding what some readers may see as closely observed tales of hardscrabble venality with powerful, sometimes dark, always ambiguous truths even Hurt’s simple Southside Virginia characters cannot explain in the end.

Hurt’s refusal to anchor his stories in shallow waters—his “open endings” and the mirror-in-the-mirror-in-the-mirror anti-conclusions he offers the reader, especially in such stories as “Mr. Karewski’s Dancing Bear” and “Blood Sports” – move him away from the southern Gothic toward a kind of new south dystopia.

While other tales, especially the “Chumbley” pair, push him firmly into southern surrealism, an almost psychedelic voyage into the world of wall-eyed crooknecks mesmerized by anything that glitters and blessed with a preternatural talent and desire to backflip into random pick-up trucks.

The first and last chapters of Hurt’s “Stories from the Road Not Taken” echo the homely, now-you-know-it, now-you-don’t certainty of treasured southern writers like Flannery O’Conner and Eudora Welty, for whom violence and the grotesque are merely silver linings to a giant superficial cloud called “gentility,” a quality their southerners continue to believe defines and redeems them.

Hurt’s narrator, Sam Cobbett, divorced and back home from the Big Apple, has re-rooted in the family manse overlooking Shaw’s Pond.

The cycle of stories opens when Sam takes over the hometown newspaper, even though he spends most of his time exuding nostalgia, a slightly moldy obsession with the past, and the particularly aimless, tidal kind of sadness for which only the French have managed to coin the perfect term-- “tristesse.”

Hurt closes the narrative circle with his final tale, “The Bright Leaf Waltz,” a kind of “Driving Miss Daisy” meets “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” It’s a device which ties beginning to end and promises readers who must divine a clear ending to justify the price of admission some sort of soul-soothing closure.

But the middle chapters, muddled like real life and almost as cruel, are the real prize in Hurt’s latest work, and as lyrical/poetic as critics note his language is, it’s his ability to cut across a reader’s comfort zone to solicit otherwise unreachable sensations that makes the reading worth it.

Hurt’s hometown of Chatham invites comparison, of course, to Shaw’s Pond, and the almost 20 years he spent as a newspaperman — co-founder of “City News — in the Bronx clearly endowed him with the tense, controlled writing skills he displays in his books and other articles.

His characters may be confused, deluded, lost, depraved and doomed, but as their author, he is always in control.

When Hurt returned to Southside Virginia, it was with his family intact. He took up a position as editor-at-large for Reader’s Digest, traveling the world to cover disasters, political upheaval and global crime and corruption—the latter “the stuff that sells newspapers,” says Hurt.

He adds, “Reader’s Digest used to be a wonderful magazine.”

Hurt decries the state of print media today.

“All diets, sex and Hollywood celebrities,” and he says that while visitors are always impressed by the fact he’s written well-received books and articles, most of his fans have actually never read any of them.

“They say, ‘Tell me what they’re about,’” says Hurt.

“And I tell them—‘get out of here!’” he adds.

Hurt says his mother—her support and praise—turned him into a writer.

“She was a prolific letter writer…I have thousands of letters she wrote from the day she left home in Texas, from her days working in New York City, and from the time she married my father to the end of her life. And I have letters she wrote to other people, aunts, uncles, friends—after they died, their relatives sent the letters she’d written them back to me.”

In these thousands of letters reside the story of his mother’s life, and to a great extent, his family’s story going back many generations.

The house in which Hurt and Margaret, his wife, have lived since they returned from New York is the same house Hurt’s parents lived in after he was born.

“This house was a warren of rental apartments then,” he says. “And when we came back, we bought the place and restored it to a single-family home.

“My mother loved the front porch,” says Hurt. “She would sit on it for hours when my parents lived in one of the apartments inside the house after I was born, and when I came back and restored the place, she would sit on this same porch for hours again and watch life go by.”

“My son, Robert Hurt, lives across the street in what may be the oldest house in Chatham,” said Hurt.

Hurt’s son, Charlie, carries on the family’s writing tradition – appearing on Fox News and writing for the Washington Times.

About his own writing, Hurt has this to say: “I set my own deadlines, and I never worked on a story I wasn’t interested in, except for one. It was called ‘Seeds of Hope,’ something about teaching poor people to grow their own vegetables.”

Sentimentality isn’t in Hurt’s playbook. His characters may feel, but the job of Hurt — the author — is using his characters to tell it like it is.

Critics have been good to Hurt’s new collection of stories (he says he has more and intends to write them) — with reviews that came out soon after “Stories from the Road Not Taken” was published last October:

From Tim Davis, former editor of Chatham Star-Tribune: “I’ve always admired Henry Hurt’s gift for storytelling, and it’s quite evident in The Road Not Taken. His writing is like a country creek — at times forceful and other times still and deep, but always with direction and pleasing to the ear.”

From William B. Crawley Jr., professor emeritus of history, University of Mary Washington: “Henry Hurt’s new book brings back so many rich memories of my years growing up in Southside Virginia. His stories are by turns charming and chilling, peopled by well-wrought characters who range from poignant to funny to fierce. Over and over, I recognized settings and language that evoke a sure sense of time and place that show the author’s accurate feel for his subject. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.”

From Lee Smith, celebrated best-selling author of “Dimestore,” “Fair and Tender Ladies,” and 20 other notable books: “Henry Hurt is an amazing fiction writer, bringing a whole lifetime of observation, reflection and love to this marvelous collection. The stories in ‘The Road Not Taken’ are filled not only with the sights and sounds and folks of his beloved Southside Virginia-- but also with humor and pathos, surprise and wonder. The Chumbleys, especially, evoke Flannery O’Connor; while ‘Mr. Karewski’s Dancing Bear’ is quite simply one of the most original and finest short stories I have ever read.”

From Kathleen O’Hare, concert pianist and editor: “Henry Hurt is a master storyteller whose love of people and place is manifest in every word of his latest book, ‘Stories from the Road Not Taken.’ With an eye for the poetic and an ear for the lyrical, the author leads the reader on an adventure that is both humorous and harsh. Narrator and main character Sam Cobbett, whose wife has divorced him and taken the children, finds himself alone on a reverse pilgrimage after he is called home to run the family’s newspaper business in the wake of his grandfather’s death. Cobbett’s stories of the small community of Shaw’s Pond emerge from the inescapable trinity of time, place and character. A compelling and wise book.”

And from New York Book Editor Steven Frimmer: “Despite the Frostian title, ‘Stories from the Road Not Taken’ is more like Sherwood Anderson with a touch of Erskine Caldwell. The writing has a sharpness and immediacy that makes the stories gripping, even in quiet episodes. This is because the characters are so real (with the possible exception of some Chumbleys) and the sense of place so definite that the reader is fully involved with the action. All in all, a vivid panorama of life in Southside Virginia, and most enjoyable to read.”

Interested in purchasing a copy of “Stories from the Road Not Taken?”

Go to www.abebooks.com.

Kathy Millar reports for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at kmillar@gazettevirginian.com.​