Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014; 240 pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
The literary history of the teenaged girl is a long and treacherous one, measured on a ruler from Sweet Valley High (low culture/Skittles) to, oh, let’s make a jump and say Tess of the D’Urbervilles (high culture/Fiber One). Badly written, the teen girl protagonist can turn one-dimensional in a very specific way, becoming a vessel through which the aims and agendas of others flow. When the female coming-of-age is told notably well, then, it is important to make the work a topic of discussion. Enter Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls, a prime example of a teen girl story gone wild and true and good.
Ugly Girls is the story of high schoolers Perry and Baby Girl, who spend their days dozing through class and their nights “out thuggin,” a pastime involving boosting cars and harassing waitresses at the local Denny’s. Theirs is a friendship of convenience, the kind adopted when the pickings are slim and the object is to get out of your house and into the world with someone, anyone. Each carries her own burdens: Baby Girl struggles with the decline of her beloved brother Charles, reduced to the intelligence of a six-year-old by a traumatic brain injury, while Perry dodges an unsatisfying home life with a strict stepfather and alcoholic mother in the trailer park, a place with an aura “like the preserved remains of a family long gone.” Both are driven by restlessness, an urge for action and definition in the midst of tedium. Baby Girl, in particular, is described as one with “itches” in a world where “people were either scratchers or ignorers. The scratchers poke and poke at it, even though it makes it itch more. The scratchers love the itch and they love the poking. It could go on forever but for the blood, and even then, it’s a small price to pay.”
Both Baby Girl and Perry underestimate the mysterious Jamey, a boy who contacts both girls online. When Jamey begins to stalk the girls, they realize he is no harmless boy, but a real-life threat, a darkness with which they must reckon in order to save themselves.
The story is a quick and bloody one, buoyed by a combination of taut language and an undeniable closeness of voice. Hunter is that rare writer who can humanize any character, even a sociopathic stalker, by capturing the yearnings and insecurities alongside the deceptions – even the way Jamey sneaks into his prey’s empty room to curl in her bed and smell her clothing in tinged with an aching (if creepy) longing, a sense of preemptive loss that haunts each character. Perry muses, “When she was a kid, she thought becoming an adult meant you just found the right door and walked through it into a burst of light…now she was older, she knew it wasn’t like that. She knew people sometimes came up to the door and kept walking right on through it.”
The real barometer for how good Ugly Girls comes to be is in characters who wear their skin comfortably enough to take turns that surprise the reader. Even sex kitten Perry, who runs the greatest risk of becoming a simplified character as Jamey’s primary victim, comes to use her sexuality as much as a weapon as a tool, confronting the truth that she, too, may be a predator of sorts. But Baby Girl, the story’s chief Ugly Girl and hero, comes to own the narrative, redeeming herself not by her posturing badassery or gestures of toughness, but with her vulnerability, her grief, and the failure of the tools she hoped would protect her.
Ugly Girls is as much a tale of class as of gender. It is trailer park noir, inhabiting a certain gritty, non-specifically Southern, diet-soda-and-Coors-Light-throwdown sense of place. The class issue adds another layer of depth to characters living in a place where, unlike in the brick-and-mortar isolation of suburbia proper, they can hear one another talk, fight, and move around in the next trailer, can see each other through the screen doors. A place where, like anywhere, “curiosity could shift, black and churning and alive, into desire,” but providing a setup in which stalkers, as Jamey demonstrates, have easier access to prey. Perry and Baby Girl are firmly entrenched in this world via class, never given the luxury of moving through or around it, and are subject to its limitations and dangers.
It’s a world made visceral and real with sharp, aerobic language and the dark humor that has become Hunter’s trademark, on display in her short story collections Don’t Kiss Me and Daddy’s, a product of Chicago’s Featherproof Books. Fiction of young, working-class womanhood, honest and well-told, deserves to be its own genre, a catalog to which Ugly Girls is a blazing, welcome addition.