October 2014

Vanessa Willoughby

fiction

Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter

Lindsay Hunter's debut Ugly Girls is a novel that puts a spotlight up to the ugliness of loneliness, resentment, and disappointment. It is a novel written with a poet's sensibilities, confident that the routine rhythms of painfully average lives can spawn monsters. Hunter delivers these monsters without fancy or gaudy disguises. The scary truth is that anyone can become a monster, given the right amount of repressed emotions and unlucky circumstances.

Dayna, otherwise known as her unofficial street name of Baby Girl, is friends with the golden-haired, genetically blessed Perry. At face value, Baby Girl and Perry make an unlikely alliance. They speak to each other with the amicable venom of war buddies. Baby Girl is chained to the anxieties and deep-burrowing insecurities that arise from not being born a leggy blonde with green eyes and a trim waist. Unlike Perry, Baby Girl is a social outsider due to her lack of delicate femininity and conventional attractiveness. However, the girls are tangled in a codependent relationship that masquerades as loyal refuge. Like a queen and her favorite lady in waiting, Perry knows that her youthful beauty is a form of power over Baby Girl. Yet Perry's beauty does little to soothe her feelings of emptiness. The girls are both bored with the monotony of everyday life, burning up with restless energy that can only be expelled via stealing cars in the thick of night, cutting class, and the occasional five-finger-discount from drugstores. Too proud to admit that they cling to one another like two drowning rats, Baby Girl and Perry navigate the choppy waters of their friendship with forced obliviousness. Their mysterious Facebook friend, Jamey, wedges himself between the girls like a tectonic shift in hopes of having Perry all to himself. Neither Baby Girl nor Perry uncovers the real man behind Jamey's online persona until it's too late.

Ugly Girls is woven with visceral language, utilizing the immediacy of sensory details. The author's background as a flash fiction writer certainly works to her advantage. Being a character driven novel, Ugly Girls uses the sense of smell, touch, taste, as tools to fine-tune the psychology of each character and sometimes the depths of their betrayals. Perry's mother, Myra, is a faded stunner with a serious alcohol problem. She is so deep into her vice that the smell of beer is practically an extension of her character; it's a constant reminder to her husband, Jim, that there is something broken in his wife. It's a reminder to Perry that her mother is not a source of selflessness or comfort. After narrowly surviving a bicycle accident, Baby Girl's older brother, Charles, is a shell of his former self, having mentally regressed due to severe brain trauma. The very smell of him -- the metallic sweat, the uncleanliness of his soiled sheets, the air in his bedroom, are poison to Baby Girl's wavering hope that perhaps pre-accident Charles is still floating around in the catacombs of his mind, ready to provide brotherly advice and protection. There is something familiar and unmistakably American in the slice of working-class life that is the focus of Hunter's mixture of crime scene reporter observations and poet's excavation of human ugliness. There is something undeniably timeless about the aches of girlhood, the need to run although one may not be sure of the final destination.

As the designated "Ugly Friend," Baby Girl, with her "half-shaved head, her blond eyelashes," wants to be tough, to be prickly to the touch. She is too proud to admit that she's jealous of Perry. It is her jealousy that serves as her ultimate undoing, as she is hurt when Jamey eventually drops his mask of the persistent suitor. Baby Girl admits to herself:

She was thinking of Jamey. How it had seemed like he might be the one to reveal it to her, might be the one to pick up where the boy at the dune had left off. How that made her a sucker, again, how she was that same dummy on the couch waiting to be undone by anything with a wiener. How Perry had her pick, just had to spin and point.

Hunter's strength is in creating characters that are not entirely sympathetic, but wholly realized and realistic. Jamey, the villain lurking in the shadows, is even shown to be partly the product of a needy, borderline incestual mother who refuses to leave the couch, let alone the trailer park. Although the author never outright excuses his wickedness, the roots of Jamey's criminality offer a chilling explanation: look no further than the family and all of the ways they terrorize one another. Perry and Baby Girl's passive aggressive shame tactics used against one another parallel the dynamics between the adults in the novel. Everyone seems to be under the influence of learned, Pavlovian behavior. Even Myra can see through her drunken stupor long enough to know that she has been the blueprint for her daughter's fragile vanity: "But sometimes she saw Perry catching her own reflection in a window, that quick appraisal, and Myra could see how Perry was pleased with what she saw. That was what she had given to Perry."

The novel ends rather abruptly, right in the middle of a fatal encounter with Jamey's vigilante mother. It leaves the reader with big questions that will never be answered, as their fates are undecided. After getting inside their heads, it seems almost cruel to be left wondering about the state of their survival.

Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374533861
240 pages