Book Review: OPEN THROAT by Henry Hoke

The narrator of Henry Hoke’s slender, evocative novel Open Throat begins their story with, “I’ve never eaten a person but today I might.” Described by the book’s publisher as a “lonely, lovable, queer mountain lion” whose pronouns are they/them, the lion shares their journey from an urban park to a suburban home to a busy Los Angeles street in a haunting and powerful tale of everyday survival.

Living in the hills under the Hollywood sign in drought-stricken LA, everything in this lion’s world is scarce: companionship, food, water. “I eat bugs and suck at the little trickles” at a ravine where water used to flow; “I go to sleep because sleep takes my hunger away.”

Yet during the day, the lion finds it hard to sleep due to “the nonstop voices of the passing hikers” near their thicket. The humans are too wrapped up in their phones or in one another to see the lion, even when they are mere steps away. 

At night, the lion visits an encampment of unhoused humans to feed on “the smaller animals that come to eat their trash and offer themselves up to get eaten by me.” The humans are aware of the lion, who is a “secret member of town,” and it seems important to keep it that way: “I want to thank my people but I know if they see me it’ll fuck up our relationship.” Humans and lion coexist peacefully, until a crime committed by other humans forces them all to relocate. The lion then finds companionship and sustenance in yet another human space, which are impossible for them to avoid.

As with any novel, voice is everything, and the lion’s voice in this story feels real: exhausted, jaded, sometimes happy, and always authentic. The plays on language — “ellay” and “scare city mentality” — are minimal and effective, and the lion’s isolation and longing come through with heartbreaking fluency. 

They do not have an easy life, suffering from human as well as environmental impacts: fireworks that bring “the day back white and blinding in the black sky”; wildfire (“the smoke is everywhere … my lungs are full of ugly … my hunger joins up with my cough and I go from walking to crawling”); and earthquakes (“I scrape the dirt and walk uphill but I’m worried the ground won’t ever be solid again”). 

The lion experiences life in a different way than humans, but their language is familiar: the LA freeway is “the long death” and money is “green paper.” And they understand humans almost better than humans understand themselves: “I know what their hands can do and what their hands would do and the violence waiting behind every motion.” 

While readers will engage with Open Throat on many levels — the novel is not only about urban wildlife and climate change but about loneliness, loss, identity, and much more — it succeeds beautifully as purely an animal book, a book about a marginalized nonhuman struggling to survive in a dangerous world. This lion struggles with their past, anxiously navigates their present, and worries about their future. 

Ultimately, Open Throat brings empathy, compassion, and understanding to a creature we humans need to understand better. Imagining a world without humans, the lion observes: “scare city isn’t scare city with no one around to say its name.” 

Open Throat is inspired by and dedicated to P-22, a mountain lion who lived in Griffith Park in Los Angeles for ten years before he was captured and euthanized due to illness and injuries. For another story about urban mountain lions, see Diane Lefer’s “Survival Skills” in Among Animals 3, an equally compassionate and illuminating story about a mountain lion living among humans in Southern California.  

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