‘Open Throat’: Experience LA through eyes and ears of a mountain lion

Written by Giuliana Mayo

“I'm trying to destroy genre, kind of in every gesture I make,” Henry Hoke says of his freeform novel told through the eyes of a mountain lion, “Open Throat.” Photo by Shutterstock.

Henry Hoke lived in LA for 11 years, but it took leaving for him to write his LA novel, “Open Throat.” Inspiration struck in Brooklyn when he heard Nick Cave’s song “Hollywood,” and its lines:

Cause they say there is a cougar that roams these parts, 
With a terrible engine of wrath for a heart 
That she is white and rare and full of all kinds of harm
And stalks the perimeter all day long
But at night lays trembling in my arms. 

Hoke hearkened back to his days living below Griffith Park and his fondness for the beloved P-22 and began writing. “I feel like Nick Cave gendered it female. And … there's a feeling of like a goddess or a spirit in the presentation of the animal. So that excited me and that definitely informed what I did with the arc of the story.”

Having spent so much time in the park, and moved in about the same time as the big cat, Hoke felt an affinity for P-22.

“I felt always allied with this figure in keeping up with updates in the time when P-22 lived under a house and things like that. And I thought ‘Oh, that's the voice. That's the perspective.’ Because we were contemporaries. And maybe we felt similar strangeness in LA and similar confusion about the voices of people and the hangups of people around us.”

The book is told through the mountain lion’s perspective as it naps, hunts, and eavesdrops from its hideout on hikers passing by. And the snippets of conversations it picks up help it learn about its human neighbors. “It can't see all of the sprawl of Los Angeles, it can't fathom it. But it's getting a sense of where it is based on these little overheard moments,” Hoke says.

As the mountain lion travels through the neighborhood, it’s given the name “Heckit” and many different genders, depending on whom it encounters. “That was an important part of my exploration of gender in this book was that, I mean, even the celebrity or the projections that Angelenos placed on P-22. It was always just like, ‘Okay, I mean, it's fine to me, you want to call it a celebrity mountain lion … ‘maybe it's looking for a mate.’ I was just like, ‘That cat doesn't necessarily order the world like we do.’”

Hoke’s previous book, “Sticker,” was a memoir of his childhood, his next is focused on middle schoolers.

“I do write about childhood a lot. … When I can really get a look at parts of my life and find the right voice and way into them is when I get most excited to craft a piece of writing, especially a large piece of writing, like a novel. To me, they're just books in strange forms.”