Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
240 pages – Amazon
With a title like Ugly Girls, there is of course the expectation of darkness, depravity, and even physical disfigurement. In the hands of Lindsay Hunter there is so much more. If you’ve read her collections, Don’t Kiss Me or Daddy’s, then you know how she balances the humor with serious issues, the longing with loneliness—always seeking empathy, sympathy, for her lost characters, as in this case with two young girls.
Perry is an attractive blonde who always gets the attention of men. Baby Girl is her opposite, shaving half her head, doing her best to push the world away. Both have baggage—Perry, a fading mother who is a drunk; and Baby Girl with an older brother, Charles, who was hurt in an accident, now labeled a “retard,” just one more reminder of how the world takes away all that they love. Add into that mix the trailer park dangers, including a predator named Jamey who has a sordid past, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The people in this novel are spot on representations of poverty, whether in trailer parks or depressed parts of this country, especially the rural south. I know people that live in houses where the rug pulls back to reveal a dirt floor, shooting deer in order to survive, not for sport but out of necessity, picking pellets out of your dinner plate, heading to the bootlegger on Sunday to get your drink on.
This isn’t just about everyone being rotten on the inside or showing that all of us have the capability for ugliness. That’s there of course, but it’s more about desire and how those needs get us in trouble:
“Sometimes Perry looked around and saw she was somewhere she didn’t want to be. Sometimes it was sudden and sometimes it was because she’d done shit to make it so. She could count on two fingers the number of times she was happy to end up in some backseat, but she couldn’t say that she hadn’t done everything she could to end up there. And like now. She hadn’t meant for it to turn out the way it did. She wanted to go to school, even. But here she was. And when Perry found herself somewhere she didn’t want to be, she rode it out until it was done, because it was the only thing to do. “
The power in this story is not in the darkness, but in the raging against the dying of the light. It’s about when the characters can make a decision that doesn’t end up with a suspension, jail time, or worse. In every sentence of this book there is a chance, and even if it isn’t taken, even if they don’t all get out of this story in one piece, there was always that potential.
Near the end of the book, Baby Girl gets shot, and she says it is a relief. She is tired of being the tough one, tired of standing up for her damaged brother, for carrying the weight. Perry finally goes to visit Travis, a boy she has a crush on, but she destroys any future with him by offering up all that she thinks she has to give. All of the adults want to be better and change things. They just don’t know how.
With Ugly Girls, Lindsay Hunter is not going to wrap this all up in a bow with every situation being better by the end. No, this is the truth, the way things often go down—some making it out, some not; some learning their lesson, but most still wallowing in despair and failure. This haunting, touching, visceral story gets under your skin, and stays there. Whether we’re born monsters or made into them, born damaged or fractured over time, the humanity in us just wants to be loved, to belong, to have a quiet, safe place to rest our head at the end of the day. That need is impossible to snuff out—no matter how ugly it gets.