Ugly Girls opens with two wanna-be thug-girls cruising around in a stolen red Mazda, blasting gangster rap. This is the perfect scene to set the tone of a sweaty, dirty, linguistic joyride — as Baby Girl sing-songs, “I’ma get mine,” we understand that taking, for these girls, is more than a teenage thrill. It’s a form of vigilante retribution; the world owes them something.
Their world is a land of trailer parks, truck stops, strip malls, and the allure of the highway. It’s a world where ugliness and prettiness polarize self-definition — Perry is your naturally-blessed beauty while Baby Girl takes pains to make herself as ugly as possible. It’s a world of smells; the uncouth permeating from armpits. I had a lot of Hole stuck in my head while reading this book, picturing Courtney Love snarling, “It smells like girl.”
This twang leaks into the narrative, too. Hunter’s distinct voice takes on a bounty of themes: performative femininity, the aesthetics of ugliness, incest, alcoholism, prison/ retribution, e-stalkers. Perry and Baby Girl form an online relationship with a former convict, Jamey, who drives a wedge into their friendship and provides the most sinister threat to their would-be innocence. Despite their “hardness,” we learn that these girls are playing thug to stave off participation in a world that does its best to regulate them into boxes.
Hunter does a good job of refuting the old trailer-park clichés, although some characters are afforded more development than others. Perry’s mother, in particular, is a once-beautiful, one-dimensional alcoholic with a disturbing lack of concern for her daughter that rang too steadfast and unprobed, I thought, to be believable. What does work is Baby Girl: all orphaned, big-boned, head-shaved swagger, a semi-parent to her disabled brother Charles, who was once a “hard motherfucker” himself. It is Baby Girl’s relationship with her brother which stands out as most sincere; he pulls out her most surprising, heartfelt moments. Still, there is a lot of agony involved. Hunter writes a very Southern-grotesque rendering of the body left to all its ripeness.
Conversely, the trailer park holds families less tenderly-depicted. Perry’s home life holds a more conventional family-attempt; her stepfather Jim is an admirable, if overworked, character, and his prison security guard POV permits us access into the cells these girls could easily wind up in. Jamey, the e-stalker, also resides in the trailer park, and Hunter elicits some sympathy for the once-convicted rapist (no easy feat) due to his stomach-turning family life.
Yet the saddest element of the story, I found, was that the two main characters really did not seem to like each other. Female friendship is a motif here, but neither Perry nor Baby Girl reap its benefits, really. At best, they’re stand-ins for staving off each other’s loneliness; at worst, they’re competitive, manipulative, comparative. This cements a layer of isolation into their narratives, something hard to read hope into. When push comes to shove and the duo separates, the stakes aren’t high enough to feel it — what are they really losing?
Hunter succeeds in building suspense as nicely as she builds her characters — the reader hungers to know whether Perry and Baby Girl “get theirs” in the end, and it’s definitely worth taking the joyride to find out.
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