Chekhov’s line about crafting drama—a gun that appears in the first act has to go off by the end of the third—is a favorite axiom for writers of the well-groomed realist novel. Well, Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel Ugly Girls asks what if the gun is never loaded, and can never be? And what if the gun doesn’t appear, truly, until the end of the second act? Ugly Girls answers these questions with a unique urgency, one that shows how flash fiction can breathe new life into the realist novel.
Ugly Girls centers upon the lives of two teenage girls, Perry and Dayna, from a backwater-ish town. (Dayna is more commonly known by her thuggin’ name, Baby Girl.) Both girls have the irksome feeling that their lives are going nowhere: their role models are Perry’s alcoholic mother, her nice-guy stepfather who is near ready to implode from his wife’s abuse, and Baby Girl’s older brother Charles, who used to be a tough guy but is now a pitiable sort of man-child, his brain having been severely damaged in a road accident. For Perry and Baby Girl, the only possible response to the malaise that surrounds them is to put on a tough face and go thuggin’. It’s how they obey Perry’s mom advice to make “life a jewelry box full of shiny things rather than a cabinet that rarely got dusted.”
Thuggin’ leads the girls on a variety of misadventures, in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Thelma and Louise. The girls skip class and stay up all night, hotwiring cars and doing donuts in the Walmart parking lot and then eating late-night snacks at the local Denny’s. This might sound like typical teenage rebellion but, like in Thelma and Louise, these acts have a deeper, more philosophical bent; they are a direct reaction to the girls’ existential ennui, and they reflect Perry and Baby Girl’s refusal to float into respectable suburban life. They don’t plan on sliding into a life they don’t want, or progressing into adulthood at all, really.
Hunter makes this clear: “Perry wanted her life to be purposeful. 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. Everything was easier through that door, because you’d found the answer. Now that she was older, she knew it wasn’t like that. She knew people sometimes came up to the door and kept walking right on past it. People like Baby Girl.” Hunter’s language is conversational and spare, dressed up by the occasional metaphor—a style that suits her novel about teenagers.
A Chicago-based writer from Florida, Hunter is known for her unflinching shamelessness toward life’s messier topics. In Don’t Kiss Me, her most recent short story collection, characters are having nervous breakdowns and vomiting and seeking out any form of thrill they can find. In the book’s opening story “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula,” a young woman desperate for sensation and male attention winds up in a gay club, falls into a dumpster, and is urinated on as she lies stricken in a heap of trash. It is flash fiction like “Peggy Paula” that has made Lindsay Hunter a name for herself. And she brings the flash fiction form to her novel, as much as possible. The characters’ adventures and boredom are aptly captured in short-burst, few-page chapters, which works to Hunter’s advantage, for the most part.
I write “for the most part” because the flash fiction method that gives her novel so much life—more life, probably, than if she had written longer chapters—weakens the ending of what is an otherwise strong first novel. Because while a wham bam! ending works for short flash fiction, when it is presented as the conclusion of a 240-page novel, it’s harder to feel satisfied. To put it another way: this is where the book departs from my Thelma and Louise comparison. While that movie’s ending (choosing to fly off a cliff, to their death, instead of being caught by the police) was a final act of malaise-induced rebellion, Ugly Girls’ ending feels too sudden and slightly deus ex machina, like it doesn’t fully build off the ennui that Hunter so skillfully depicts in the book’s earlier chapters.
Because I wasn’t telling the full truth when I said that the gun in Hunter’s novel is unloaded. Baby Girl’s gun, pilfered from Charles, the brother whose thuggin’ days are over, has no bullets, and the girls are presumably too young to buy any. I wasn’t telling the full truth because there is another gun, an ex-con’s BB gun, and suddenly, in the final scene, that measly gun becomes the significant one. It is that gun that fires the only bullets shot in the novel, and they’re aimed at Baby Girl.