Leah Hampton‘s F*ckface is a piercing debut. The collection of 12 fictional short stories are affecting in their portrait of the human condition. Interweaving humor and critical commentary, Hampton champions the voice of rural Appalachia. Her strength is characterization, with each short story fully developing empathy and honesty. Her characters are flawed, but without alienating her readers, Hampton ensures each story delivers a recognizable parable. F*ckface finds its power in the depiction of Appalachia and its inhabitants.
Hampton’s stories predominantly feature intelligent women who live non-normative lives. The opening eponymous story presents a young, queer woman who longs to leave her rural town for Asheville, a perceived bastion of liberalism. “Parkway” centralizes a female forest warden, who worries the pressures of the job are destroying her marriage to her wife. Whereas these characters embody the other, they aren’t marginalized nor subvert dominant paradigms. Hampton portrays them as normalized, valued, and accepted individuals, thereby dismantling any stereotypes defining the region’s peoples. Hampton enlivens a segment of the population that is often cloaked, if not overtly ignored, in other forms of contemporary writing.
F*ckface is set in rural Appalachia. Vibrant descriptions of the woodlands, the smoky mountains, and rural landscapes strengthen Hampton’s narratives and temper the bleak subjects she undertakes. Ecoanxiety is a prominent theme throughout the collection. Hampton contextualizes the dire effects of big-industry on the region’s environment but also on the individual.
In “Twitchell” the local chemical plant is responsible for dumping chemicals into the water and ground. Hampton problematizes Twitchell Chemical’s failed accountability and disregard for public health. The company knowingly mishandled the product, causing generations to suffer from cancer. Hampton methodically plots the varying responses to Twitchell, unsurprisingly, not all are negative.
When having a conversation after church, three characters share their cancer stories. Iva Jo ruminates on the connection between the lump in her breast and working for the company as a secretary decades ago. Margie is the lone outlier. She contends Twitchell’s presence in the community created viable jobs. She dismisses the health crisis by specifying the employees at least had health insurance.
But Hampton shows her hand: Iva Jo decides she is uninterested in maintaining their friendship with Margie. By positioning Margie as the foil, Hampton rejects the character’s credibility. Hampton captures the divisive understanding of the role and impact of these big-industries in rural communities. She uses F*ckface to vocalize the standpoint of a community while advocating for environmental welfare.
When animals appear in Hampton’s writing, pay careful attention; they foreshadow character arches and provide insight into humanity. In “Boomer”, for example, a squirrel buries its winter stash in a woodpile slated for burning in a stove. Larry, the story’s protagonist, watches the squirrel ineffectually hide its stash. Ineffectuality is a state Larry is well acquainted with: he is a firefighter facing unrelenting forest fires while plodding through the end of his marriage. Eventually, Larry doesn’t see the squirrel anymore and wonders if it realized the fruitlessness of its endeavor. Coincidentally, Larry accepts his inability to quell the fires or save his marriage.
The entire collection is accented with similar parallels evoking animals as harbingers of wisdom. For Hampton, animals, typically misunderstood as the lesser, are representative of knowledge and honor. This is an apt device avowing Appalachians’ integrity.
Who exactly is the fuckface according to Hampton? It’s a myriad of individuals and corporate entities whose entitlement and selfishness cause mental or physical harm to others. The collection’s standout story, “Wireless”, focuses on Margaret. Unmarried, introverted, and eccentric, she struggles to understand her role in a conservative and parochial town. She reunites with high school friend Robbie, a chronic adulterer. Despite their faults, neither of these characters are the archetypal fuckfaces, they are merely imperfect.
Hampton subtly unravels the story and returns to high school when Margaret was sexually assaulted by Parker, her now brother-in-law. Parker, a serial rapist, was never charged due to the acceptance of rape myths. Twenty years later, Margaret is still living with PTSD. Robbie realizes Margaret’s idiosyncrasies are a method of self-protection.
In “Mingo” and “Frogs”, the fuckfaces present themselves as the region’s outsiders who plunder and steal to benefit their individual needs. In the former, the characters lament the mountaintop removal. Mining leaves the land gutted and polluted, causing the small towns to become economically depressed and sickening its citizens.
In “Frogs” it is the haughty and condescending manner in which outsiders perceive the rural individuals. When a character laments, “he’s not even from here”, the reader is given a clear image of the antagonism cast between the rural and urban divide. For Hampton, the true fuckface is any creator of destruction and toxicity, regardless of whether it is physical, emotional, or environmental.
The first half of the collection is especially clear-eyed while interlacing astute observational humor. Yet the second half decelerates. “Devil” is generic in its description of the anxiety around the connection to home. “Queen”‘s parallel between a deceased matriarch and the death of a beehive is underdeveloped. “Meat” presents an interesting start to the interconnection between humans and animals in an industrialized feedlot but the dehumanization of the slaughterhouse employees and animal abuse is left unchecked. Finally, in “Sparkle” the main character Beth settles on her failure to find empowerment. The collection ends on a disappointing note with Beth merely accepting her lack.
Perhaps it’s too demanding to expect all of Hampton’s characters to grow, that isn’t the reality nor typical of humanity. And that is precisely Hampton’s objective: these are stories delineating an authentic representation despite the fictionalization. F*ckface‘s realness provides a picture into a community while engendering the voices of its denizens.