Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel isn’t just about ugly girls. It’s about ugly people, ugly places, ugly lives—“ugly” being used on the deeper, moral level. Hunter presents a host of unlikeable characters living in a box-store world, Denny’s and Circle K and Payless and McDonald’s, trailer parks and cul-de-sacs, where alcoholic mothers suck on brown bottles and oversexed adolescents find that the only fun to be had lies in the back seats of cars and doing doughnuts in a Walmart parking lot. Hunter’s America may be shocking, a place without hope, upward mobility not even a glimmer in her characters’ eyes. But it’s vivid, visceral, and engrossing.
Hunter’s ugly girls are two best friends, Baby Girl and Perry, who are, in many ways, the archetypal teenage duo. Perry is the pretty one, who resembles “some kind of garden fairy, only tall. Bright green eyes, black eyelashes, blond hair. Tanned legs. Smallish boobs.” All the boys and men desire her, and some have had her. Baby Girl is the wannabe thug, the one who radiates I-don’t-give-a-fuck. Since her brother Charles got into an accident, leaving him in a helpless, mentally deficient state, she has made it her mission to be as unattractive as possible: she is the girl with the shaved head, her brother’s saggy jeans, a “sports bra to tamp those fuckers down. Work boots she’d stolen from Payless,” plump lips outlined in liner and shined with gloss, her lips her favorite feature. She considers herself a “tough bitch.” She is the virgin.
But these girls go beyond a generic image of teenage friendship. As the title suggests, they are not your well-behaved, straight-A students. The first chapters follow them as they sneak out through bedroom windows, steal cars, throw gum at old ladies, act offensively, flippantly, selfishly. They are not good to one another. Baby Girl harbors an intense jealousy of Perry’s beauty, of the attention she gets. Perry is the type of friend who, when Baby Girl shaves her head, she says to Baby Girl in front of a group of women, “As your friend it’s my duty to let you know that you look like a fucking retard.”
The list of unlikeable characters builds. Perry’s mother, Myra, is a negligent alcoholic, a woman who daily returns to the bottle for an ephemeral trip back to her halcyon youth, when she was a beauty, something to be desired:
When she was younger, about Perry’s age, drinking with her friends made the nights feel plump with possibility. The way the streetlights could blur, the way music was never loud enough, the highway going east forever in one way and west forever in another. Even sitting in someone’s garage waiting around for something would happen. What could the future hold? It didn’t matter, as long as there was that feeling.
A future, and a sense that one can break out of a cycle of self-destruction—these are nonexistent in Hunter’s novel. Perry’s crush, Travis, comes to class in grease-soaked clothes, eyes sunken from long nights working at Denny’s. Jim works shift after shift as a prison guard, a job that leaves him stripped of energy and motivation. This is an America where you get by, where pleasure comes from breaking the law, acting in ways that hurt other people. Hunter offers no respite from the grit, speeding you through chapter after chapter of bad behavior and reckless abandon.
Even Jim, Perry’s stepfather, the only character you feel you can trust, who seems to have some semblance of a moral code, turns out to be nearly as flawed as Hunter’s ugly girls and his wife, Myra:
He found himself doing this more lately. Comparing himself with Myra to see who came out the better person. He always won, and the feeling he got from this had become like an addiction… It was what kept them together, now. In the beginning it had been sex and the mystery that comes with slowly realizing you were sharing your time with another human being, same as you, someone that also chewed food and had nightmares and shat in the toilet… and then it slowly crumbled, fight by fight, into the ruins it was now… He’d known just what he was signing up for when he married her. And that kept him right where he was more than anything.
But the flaws of these characters are put into perspective when Perry and Baby Girl start chatting online with a stranger, a man named Jamey, a pedophile who has indecent intentions toward Perry. After chatting with them from a distance, Jamey arranges a meeting with the two girls, one that renders him harmless at the bottom of a quarry.
When Jim discovers Jamey’s involvement with his stepdaughter, Hunter speeds through the pages, attempting to resolve the plot. Patient, four-to-five-page chapters devolve into one-paragraph summations of action and emotion. It feels as if Hunter doesn’t really want to assemble all the broken pieces—the dead body at the bottom of the quarry, the girls’ broken friendship, Jim and Myra’s broken marriage. It feels as if she’d rather leave the future open.
But for some reason she puts the pieces together. Instead of leaving the novel in questions, letting us wonder what will happen to these broken people, she attempts to quickly resolve the complex plot, bringing all of the characters into one room, into the trailer, and handing one of them a gun, forcing a resolution. And this resolution does feel forced, too easy. Put a gun in a character’s hand, and things get easier for the novelist. When someone is dead—in this case, a teenage girl—many questions go away. Marital problems become minor, resolvable. A tattered friendship becomes irrelevant. A dead body, the body of a convicted pedophile at the bottom of a ravine, becomes just another dead body, easily forgotten in light of the death of a teenage girl, whose innocence and virginity remains intact into her death.
These girls are not sweethearts: they steal cars, are bitches (Baby Girl’s word), show a perpetual lack of disrespect to their parents, relatives, and superiors, and even play a part in the death of said pedophile. But these girls have yet to come to terms with adulthood, with how the world works. They have yet to fully understand the complex dynamics of sex, the respect owed to one’s family, the repercussions of their actions on their community and loved ones. At the end of the book, these girls are still children. In this novel, a dead child is a period.
So when one of these girls is killed, her innocence taken in a freak accident, and not by the cruelty of life and its circumstances, the real aggressor in this book, it feels out of line with what Hunter is trying to achieve. Isn’t this book, after all, about life’s unfairness, about the harshness and brutality that people face? Perry didn’t get to choose the mother she got; she was born to a vain alcoholic. The future of Baby Girl’s brother comes to naught when he gets in an accident that leaves him a vegetable. Jamey was born with an attraction to girls; he didn’t choose his sickness. As Herman, an incarcerated pedophile says to Jim, “Jesus Christ told me I gotta dump all the trash, clear the land and start over. I know I got an affliction that’s out of my control, so I got to give it to God.” Giving it to God, hoping that some higher power is controlling things, is out of the question in this book. In Hunter’s novel, God is absent. These characters are on their own.
It would have been much more compelling to see Baby Girl struggle through what she did, to manage her sense of self-worth, to grow. Instead, a gun wipes away the difficulties of growing up. As she is dying, she hallucinates driving down a highway to pull Jamey’s body from the bottom of the quarry and admit her wrongdoing. We are taunted by the notion of Baby Girl’s redemption, her growth. But Hunter doesn’t give it to us. We do not know what will become of Perry. Her inability to understand love and intimacy lingers on the last pages. “She’d never leave this shabby, un-loved room. The Perry that she was right then, that girl was trapped forever.” In the end, Hunter insists that Perry and Baby Girl remain ugly girls forever.
– Lee Matalone’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bridge Eight, Bookslut, Perversion Magazine and elsewhere. She has contributed fiction to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. She lives in New Orleans.