Mr. Splitfoot really should work for me. Unfolding across two time periods, it follows two halves of the story of Ruth, an orphan raised in a group home by a religious cult leader. In the first story, we follow Ruth and her closest friend, a young man named Nat, as they attempt to survive their bizarre childhood and find themselves falling in with a traveling con man who spies Nat’s “communing with the dead”; in the second, a much older Ruth visits her niece Cora, who’s single, pregnant, and questioning her place in the world, and decides to follow a strangely silent Ruth on a long walking journey to…well, somewhere, right?
Con artists, religious cults, doomsday prophets, and ghost stories – all of it should add up to a book I loved. Instead, Mr. Splitfoot was an absolute slog for me, losing its way in overwritten and turgid prose more interested in showing off than in conveying a story, confusing “cryptic” for “interesting”, and never realizing that it takes a certain kind of story to handle a lack of clear answers, and this sure isn’t one.
Much of the blame for that has to be laid at the feet of the Ruth and Cora story, whose tedium really can’t be overstated for me; while the initial mystery is intriguing (where are they going? Why won’t Ruth talk?), the story feels like it’s spinning its wheels waiting on the point where it can intersect with the other plot thread, and so instead we get chapter after chapter after chapter of the characters walking and Cora thinking to herself. Which, in of itself, might not be a bad thing, but Hunt never brings much interesting to the table in these sequences, and at a certain point, the big reveals she has at the end of the story are so weak and pointless that they can’t justify the wait to get there.
But even the section of the book that follows Ruth in her childhood falls flat ultimately, as the plot gets more and more ludicrous and twisty, robbing it of its pleasures. Setting aside Hunt’s showy writing, the group home material is at least engaging, if eye-rollingly Gothic at times. And as the con man surrogate father enters the book, there’s a sense that at least we’re going somewhere fun. But, alas, that’s not meant to be, as things get silly once again by the end and Hunt’s convoluted story starts doubling back on itself.
Mr. Splitfoot feels like a Gothic ghost story that’s embarrassed to admit that it’s a genre piece, and so it gussies itself up with overwrought prose and leaves enigmas aplenty so as to feel “literary”. But the enigmas aren’t thought-provoking; they’re tedious and annoying. And the prose is never engaging or rich; it’s just distracting and forced. It all adds up to a slog on just about every level.