On Michael Paterniti’s “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow” (Esquire, November 1997)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: This is the story of two competing motel owners in Dodge City, Kansas. One a former cattle owner, Jack Hooker, and his wife Bev. The other, a couple who immigrated from Laos. The Hookers don’t know Donna and Boun Sinhpraseut, and the Sinhpraseuts don’t know the Hookers. Jack Hooker is resentful that immigrants have seemingly one-upped him and other Americans who have been making a living through blue-collar work for as long as he and his family have. Donna’s story is one of fitting in in a country that doesn’t want her to be there.

I’ve recommended this story to every journalist who’s ever talked shop with me. I’ve read it five times, let its style grow on me. And it’s easily my all-time fave. A certain must-read.

The story is a tale of two perspectives. Paterniti emphasizes that Jack Hooker “hates and knows he’s hated,” and he makes Hooker’s resentment apparent through bits like this: “Different people, these Mexicans and Asiatics—crawling all over your world, closing you in. And the Cambodians—you can’t help but wonder why they wander in front of your place all day long, eyeing you as they go.” Paterniti writes as if he is Jack Hooker.

He does the same with Donna: He becomes her. He tells you what you don’t know about Donna—what Jack Hooker doesn’t know—and her family’s backstory, the nearly unimaginable obstacles she brought her family through.

And he does it to the reader, too. He places the reader in Jack and Donna’s lives. This is what makes the story the most compelling. He does this from the start in the opening line of the story: “Go with him. Go out into to the feed yards with Jack Hooker,” reminding the reader in the next section:

“So this is your life, Jack Hooker’s life: Broken Coke machines and ice makers, broken Zenith TVs and GE air conditioners, broken Sylvania bulbs and Budweiser beer bottles smashed from the second-floor balcony last night by some wasted Mexicans, the jagged glass reflecting on the pool bottom. Just off the boat, says Jack Hooker in his gravelly drawl—you know how that goes.”

Notice the negative vibe associated with “some wasted Mexicans,”  the racial judgment theme beginning to surface.

And with Donna: “So this is your life, Donna’s life: sheets and towels and dirty toilets. Money, always money. Worry about kids. One daughter been hurt by her Vietnamese husband. When it comes to him, won’t even acknowledge that word: husband.”

Also notice that he not only writes from her perspective, he speaks like Donna, too, just as he does with Jack Hooker, assuming a hint of country twang in his tone and short, choppy sentences that begin with verbs instead of subjects. The broken English in Donna’s sections is not meant to be offensive, but to help the reader become her.

With these strategies he illustrated how we judge people who are racially different from us without understanding anything about where they’ve come from. It does something that few writers can do successfully today: tell the whole truth. Not almost the whole truth or most of the truth without the offensive details. He leaves out nothing so that the reader has a comprehensive, all-embracing understanding about race. Easily the realest story I’ve read.