My copy of Bille Letts’s novel The Honk and Holler Opening Soon was procured from a used bookstore, the choice based solely on the funny title. I have the 1999 edition from Warner Books, which I recommend for the Q & A with the author and the reading group guide at the back.
“The Honk and Holler” refers to the type of business Caney Paxton wanted to run — a restaurant with carhops — and the “Opening Soon” part ended up on the sign because he put the order in for the thing while drunk. This is the story of a man who, after returning from Vietnam in a wheelchair, opened a restaurant with the living quarters in back and hasn’t left it for twelve years. His only waitress is an aging woman who practically raised him, and Caney can’t seem to find a cook. It is 1985.
On a journey across the American south, Vena Takes Horse, a Native American woman who wants to learn as much as she can about the last days of her recently deceased sister, makes a stop in Oklahoma at the Honk and Holler and says she is willing to work for tips only — just something to get money in her pocket to help her on her journey. She must be magic, because customers zip to the restaurant like never before.
Bui Khanh is a Vietnamese man who made it to America, but he doesn’t speak the language and must find a job to bring his wife over from the war-torn country. One day, he walks into the Honk and Holler to be the chef, and while a great Vietnamese cook, he can’t get a handle on things like scrambled eggs. He won’t leave, instead fixing everything that has moving parts around the Honk, from doors to dishwashers. On the back of the Vietnam war, people look suspiciously at this man drinking from a Batman mug and wiping his hands on a Christmas towel.
The way these diverse characters end up in one location doesn’t matter as much as how the reader will feel about them interacting together. Letts’s novel has a warm feeling, much like Sarah Addison Allen’s work, if you’ve read her, and unfolds slowly. The Honk and Holler is more character-driven than plot. Even minor characters, ones who come in to eat every day, are memorable, such as the man who smokes while his wife is on her oxygen machine, the devout church lady, the fisherman, the lady who collects lunch for her sick husband, and more. Letts captures the melting pot that America wants to be, including African American, Native American, Vietnamese, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, and disabled people, and I appreciated that. Each is treated with dignity, and none is tokenized.
The dialogue was natural, a challenging feat, and captured a style unique to each person. Letts doesn’t “southern up” the whole book in the name of sounding like a certain region, which wouldn’t work with her diverse cast anyway. The different voices helped the novel come to life. It was so life-like, in fact, that at one point I found myself sobbing in distress because I thought one thing happened only to start sobbing again a chapter later to find out that it had not. I highly recommend The Honk and Holler Opening Soon and can’t wait to check out more work by this author.