"Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Cinestate
Written by S. Craig Zahler
2017, 256 pages, Fiction
Published on September 12th, 2017
If you have friends that read a lot, know authors (people who actually write, not just say they are going to), or listen to any sort of writing-centric podcast, one thing you're bound to hear if you haven't already is read outside your comfort level. That basically means, or I take it to mean, if you only read horror or thriller, try reading a biography or autobiography. Or maybe if you only read novels written by men, perhaps read something written by a woman, a person of color, someone whose sexuality is different to yours; that sort of thing. I'm a failure at this in practice. The irony is, while I like what I like, the times I have gone out of my comfort level, I've had a lot of fun doing so. D. Harlan Wilson introduced me to the world of bizarro with the novels Codename Prague, Dr. Identity, or, Farewell to Plaquedemia, and The Kyoto Man. I still think of both James Welche's Fools Crow and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye on occasion, two books I read decades ago in college. And with S. Craig Zahler's latest, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, add another genre that is way outside of my comfort zone.
To be honest, I don't even know what genre this book is. While, at its core, it's darkly comedic (pitch black, folks), it's also very high in tension, drama, and brutally realistic. I suppose it can be gothic, or maybe weird fiction. I'm guessing at that, though. If I've read weird fiction, I'm not aware of it. And now I'm sure someone will correct me on in the comments if I'm wrong because that's how it goes on the webs. No matter what, this is not something I would have normally read if it was anyone else wrote it. The back cover synopsis would not grab me:
Hug Chickenpenny is an anomalous child. Born from tragedy and unknown paternity, this asymmetrical and white-haired baby inspires both ire and pity at the orphanage, until the day that an elderly eccentric adopts him as a pet. The upbeat boy's spirit is challenged in his new home and as he is exposed to prejudiced members of society in various encounters. Will Hug and his astronautical dreams survive our cruel and judgmental world?
This? This (I thought) wouldn't interest me. It's not my bag. But it's also written by Zahler, and if you've ever read any of Zahler's work (or maybe watched Bone Tomahawk), you make exceptions. Not only does his book synopsis not do the content justice, the author simply does not care about your emotions, or how attached you are to anyone in his books. He writes what's true, not what's going to make the reader feel good, and that's why I will read everything he publishes. He does not fuck around. Hug Chickenpenny is no exception.
Hug lives a hell of a life in this book, bouncing from adoptive parents to the orphanage and back and forth again, all the while you are screaming in your head for some good to happen to this weird-looking, exceptionally smart little boy. In a way, Hug Chickenpenny is like Jeff Strand's Fangboy, and in a way it's completely different. Both books are statements on society on how by and large we treat our fellow man who looks different like shit, both have a gallows humor, both have a lot of heart, and both have a main character you root for from the moment he is introduced. Where they differ is the execution. Fangboy is a little lighter than Hug Chickenpenny. You feel bad for what happens to Strand's title character, where you are emotionally drained for Zaher's. If they were movies, they'd be an amazing double feature.
But I digress. While Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child is not something I'd normally read and had me reaching for the dictionary more than once, it's one of those books that I know will stay with me for a long, long time. Zahler's work will do that. Like his damning westerns Wraiths of the Broken Land and A Congregation of Jackals (ironically enough, the western is another genre I've never read before those), Hug Chickenpenny is much more than literature. It's an experience. It takes loads of talent to get you invested in a character immediately after meeting him or her, it takes even more to maintain the reader's passion for him or her, and if you get to the end of your work drawing emotion from the reader for a long time coming, you're a bona fide rock star. I'd call Zahler Elvis Presley for this, but he's more of a Johnny Cash. He's an outlaw that cuts his own path. Not only can he tell a story, he's damn good at it. If you feel the need to read outside of your comfort zone, and gothic/weird/almost-YA-but-not-quite/not-even-sure-what-to-call-it fiction is not something you read, pick this up. You won't be disappointed.