Analysis of 'How to Talk to a Hunter' by Pam Houston

Everywoman and Inevitability

Various stuffed animal heads.
Image courtesy of Colin Davis.

"How to Talk to a Hunter" by American writer Pam Houston (b. 1962) was originally published in the literary magazine Quarterly West. It was subsequently included in The Best American Short Stories, 1990, and in the author's 1993 collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness.

The story focuses on a woman who continues dating a man -- a hunter -- even as the signs of his infidelity and lack of commitment mount.

Future Tense

One striking feature of the story is that it is written in future tense. For example, Houston writes:

"You will spend every night in this man's bed without asking yourself why he listens to top-forty country."

The use of future tense creates a sense of inevitability about the character's actions, as if she's telling her own fortune. But her ability to predict the future seems to have less to do with clairvoyance than with past experience. It's easy to imagine that she knows exactly what will happen because it -- or something just like it -- has happened before.

So the inevitability becomes as significant a part of the story as the rest of the plot.

Who Is the "You"?

I have known some readers who resent the use of second-person ("you") because they find it presumptuous. After all, what could the narrator possibly know about them?

But for me, reading a second-person narrative has always seemed more like being privy to someone's internal monologue than like being told what I, personally, am thinking and doing.

The use of second-person simply gives the reader a more intimate look at the character's experience and thought process. The fact that the future tense sometimes changes to imperative sentences like, "Call the hunter's machine. Tell him you don't speak chocolate" only further suggests that the character is giving herself some advice.

On the other hand, you don't have to be a heterosexual woman dating a hunter to be dating someone who's dishonest or who shies away from commitment. In fact, you don't have to be romantically involved with someone at all to be taken advantage of. And you definitely don't have to be dating a hunter in order to watch yourself enact mistakes that you see perfectly well are coming.

So even though some readers might not recognize themselves in the specific details of the story, many might be able to relate to some of the larger patterns described here. While second-person might alienate some readers, for others it can serve as an invitation to consider what they have in common with the main character.

Everywoman

The absence of names in the story further suggests an attempt to portray something universal, or at least common, about gender and relationships. Characters are identified by phrases like "your best male friend" and "your best female friend." And both of these friends tend to make sweeping declarations about what men are like or what women are like. (Note: the entire story is told from a heterosexual perspective.)

Just as some readers might object to second-person, some will surely object to gender-based stereotypes.

Yet Houston does make a convincing case that it's difficult to be completely gender-neutral, as when she describes the verbal gymnastics that the hunter engages in to avoid admitting that another woman has come to visit him. She writes (hilariously, in my opinion):

"The man who has said he's not so good with words will manage to say eight things about his friend without using a gender-determining pronoun."

The story seems entirely aware that it's dealing in clichés. For example, the hunter speaks to the protagonist in lines from country music. Houston writes:

"He'll say you are always on his mind, that you're the best thing that's ever happened to him, that you make him glad that he's a man."

And the protagonist answers with lines from rock songs:

"Tell him it don't come easy, tell him freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Though it's easy to laugh at the communication gap Houston portrays between men and women, country and rock, the reader is left wondering to what extent we ever can escape our clichés.