Book review: Hunger

After I graduated from college but before I moved to Boston, in May 2006, I went to visit Amy in Raleigh and she gave me some books:  If on a winter’s night a traveler, The man without qualities, Hunger. Maybe others. Then my dad drove me to the airport and I flew to Boston.  I was starting a job as a research assistant about two weeks later and I was subletting a room from some BU students I found on Craigslist. I had to send a cashier’s check to these people to secure the room and there was some question up until the moment they let me into the apartment about whether I had been defrauded.  Three students–Alaa, Emily, and Lauren–lived in the apartment. There was also Katie, an old friend of Lauren’s who was a student at UMass Boston and who described herself as “basically another roommate” which was what I considered an unpleasant surprise. She had purple hair and seemed even less ambitious than the other three, who all turned out to be at the center of a social network comprised of numerous losers who were all enrolled at Boston University at the time.

I arrived in Boston during an early summer rainstorm.  I thought it’d already be chilly that far north but it was humid and warm and my glasses fogged up as soon as I got off the B train at Commonwealth Ave. and Harvard St.  I was impressed by how dirty that neighborhood was. I could sense that rats were everywhere, hiding.

I was happy to be in Boston and happy if a bit nervous to have nothing to do for two weeks.  I wandered around and read Hunger in a sort of unintentional and self-aware reenactment of the events in the book.  I had to be careful with my money since I wasn’t going to be paid for another three weeks–and, again, had some vague premonition that I was going to get screwed somehow and not actually get paid for working–but I wasn’t pawning the buttons on my shirt.  I’d walk down to Espresso Royale, a coffee shop near the BU main campus, read and drink coffee until I got anxious, then ride the 66 bus over to Harvard Square and walk around there and read in whatever coffee shops I ran across. In Harvard Square there was a burrito place called Anna’s that reminded me of Cosmic Cantina in Chapel Hill so I started eating at Anna’s every day because I ate at Cosmic Cantina every day and the bus ride over to Cambridge provided some structure.

Eventually the rats started to appear.  I saw them scurry into alleyways or other places while I was walking home at night, and later one of them came into the apartment.  It was barely evening and we were watching TV in the living room that was not a separate room from the kitchen but separated from it by a sofa we all tacitly agreed was the dividing line between the two rooms.  There was rustling in the kitchen, and Katie turned around and screamed, the most strenuously engaged I’d ever see her body. The rat barely acknowledged the sound and continued digging into a bag of bread on the lowest of the wire shelves where we kept our food.  Over the next week or so, the rat came to take on a personality. It was fearless. You had to stomp near its head to get him to go back wherever he came from. Eventually Alaa or Emily bought a rat trap and caught him. He lay there dead, his spine broken and his massive gray body sprawled on the kitchen floor, like a big gray kitten.  Eric, a Steelers fan studying business administration at Boston University, was summoned to dispose of the rat. I watched Eric take the rat to the dumpster in the alleyway and I hated everyone in the apartment at that moment, including Eric, even though he’d been helpful with the rat.

A few days later I found my own place.  The rat was dead and I took that as a sign that I needed to leave, the rat’s blood transmogrified into the ink I used to sign the lease for a $995/month studio apartment on Commonwealth Ave., right next to a liquor store.  I lived in that apartment for a year and loved it. I loved the weird dangerous elevator, the floors in the foyer spongy and ruined, the gay Asian guy named Angelo who lived across the hall who always seemed a little scared when I greeted him. I liked living alone in a city where I didn’t know anybody and where I could sit in the window and smoke cigarettes and get buzzed and just listen.


“Ah, will you be kind enough to give me a bone for my dog?” I said; “only a bone.  There needn’t be anything on it; it’s just to give him something to carry in his mouth.”

I got the bone, a capital little bone, on which there still remained a morsel of meat, and hid it under my coat.  I thanked the man so heartily that he looked at me in amazement.

“Oh, no need of thanks,” said he.

“Oh yes; don’t say that,” I mumbled; “it is kindly done of you,” and I ascended the steps again.

My heart was throbbing violently in my breast.  I sneaked into one of the passages, where the forges are, as far in as I could go, and stopped outside a dilapidated door leading to a backyard.  There was no light to be seen anywhere, only blessed darkness all around me; and I began to gnaw at the bone.

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