Blue is thirsty. If only he could get a few drops of water. His life needs a tune up for his engine to purr instead of squeak or roar. If only someone would change his oil. He imagined Everest but what he got is Iowa City, not even a single hill to climb. He would try taking a shortcut, but knows he’d probably get lost in the woods. Blue is hungry, always.
We meet Blue in Uzodinma Okehi’s propellant novella House of Hunger, in December 1994, a couple of months after he’s arrived in Iowa City for college. Immediately we get the interiority of frustration through Blue’s inner monologue as he takes us through attempted — and unsuccessful — sexual encounters with Inez, transposed with the external dialogue that will take you right back to your own dorm room. The negotiation, the unraveling of an early experience between two people who are technically independent adults but who still haven’t found their freedom. Okehi’s interplay with interiority and exteriority here is brilliant — so potent and playful, the reader can actually visualize it playing out on a split screen. A tragicomedy of a universal experience that has so much of Okehi’s singular voice, we feel like we just walked in on Blue and Inez right there in the room.
Blue is living in the displacement of not knowing real life yet, the deep discomfort of breathing on his own. And haven’t we all fumbled through the beginnings of adult life like this? Blue thinks everyone he meets is perfect until their foibles show, too. “And as usual, without warning, as if I’m the one suddenly not quite getting it,” he laments, not about a public faux pas, but about being left to his own devices as his best friend, Abdul, plays his new Nintendo N64 solo instead of watching an action movie with Blue or working on their script together. Who hasn’t counted on a connection, a partner in crime, only to find they’re on their own? Again, Okehi shines showing us Blue’s internal reckoning.
Soon enough, there are cracks in the facades of the cast of characters around Blue. The avatars they’ve projected begin to disintegrate, and underneath those, he starts to realize their insecurities look a lot like his own, like when his friend leaves a 20 page confessional letter for a girl under her door, a girl who’s “fucking and riding” someone else. But something about leaving that ill advised letter under the door gives Blue a glimpse of what freedom feels like: “The thing about freedom. I can set my own schedule, but it’s like a trap.” Remember being in the chapter of life like Blue, when everything feels electric, when you’re on the precipice? And then realizing adulthood is equal parts freedom and begrudging routine. But Blue knows — and we know, too — that his hunger will likely not allow for settling into the trap.
He has the restless energy of being the first to the scene, or maybe the last to the scene…he’s not sure which, and that continues to fuel this feeling. A dog chasing his own tail. He just needs something to latch his attention to. He continues to display external patience to Inez, though we know that inside he feels he’s “searching for ass, lost in a desert.” As he’s venting to Abdul about this, Abdul is once again lost in the N64, to which Blue finally asks “Man, how many times you played this level?” and the reader knows we could be asking Blue the same thing about his so far futile quest to get Inez to advance his sexual game.
Iowa City does nothing to help him get to the next level, keeps him in an infinite loop of “grey stairs, grey hallways, onto cloudy, grey decades of days somehow resigned to fate.” He begins to take his drawing more seriously, draw/erase, draw/erase, draw/erase. One of his friends escapes Iowa City, calls Blue to sell the virtues of his now bigger life, before asking Blue if he’s seen the girl around, and then his bravado starts to crack, too – he’s cold, he’s alone, he starts to cry as Blue has to set the corded phone down to reach his sandwich. By now, Blue sees how this goes. His confidence or independence or maybe, finally, his freedom gaining, now he’s imagining someone else’s instincts and found circumstances, and he’s thinking about the choice they made versus the choice he would have made for them. He answers a question in class secularly and his classmate answers it religiously. His internal monologue is beginning to crack through and become verbalized.
His boxing teacher tells the class not to wear their hand wraps outside of class, but Blue thinks of a Halloween costume that requires them and does it anyway. Guess who he runs into? A fight ensues, and the only thing Blue laments is that it doesn’t make him bleed.
We sit on the sidelines, rapt, cheering for Blue. He’s been circling around everyone and everything else. But from the first page, the reader sees that in this solar system, he’s the sun, and actually everyone else is orbiting around him. By the end of House of Hunger, Blue is on the precipice again, of realizing where these planets align. Okehi makes us want to serve Blue these other planets on a platter and feed them to him to satiate his appetite, to fuel him for whatever he comes up with next. Draw and not erase. Finally advance to the next level.