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Lindsay Hunter's 'Ugly Girls' plays it safe in the dark

Lindsay Hunter's 'Ugly Girls' goes from shoplifting and hot-wiring to capital-A atrocities

If there was one book I looked forward to this year it was Lindsay Hunter's "Ugly Girls." For one thing, rarely has a title seemed more suited for a time period. Is American freakdom under threat or all the more in vogue when millennials come up with the term "normcore"? Something that could have just remained a New York Magazine buzzword has instead invaded the mainstream, with the Gap using the phrase "Dress Normal" to brand their polite staples. Perhaps a bit of ugly stylism from art could counteract all the anti-style sameness a new generation appears to require.

Another reason I couldn't wait for this: Hunter wrote two exciting short-story collections, "Don't Kiss Me" and "Daddy's." Hunter is a wiz of the shortest shorts; her best flash fiction reminds us of the genre's twin prose poetry, and by helming a flash fiction series in Chicago, she's made a name as an advocate of the form.

The short story is a more difficult form than the novel. As many have noted, the novel historically tends toward the more conventional. And this might be why this debut novel — Hunter's first book for a mainstream publisher too — might be a challenging fit. Dress Normal, it's telling Hunter, but I get the feeling she is not the kind of woman who likes to dress normal.

"Ugly Girls" is the story of best friends Perry and Baby Girl, one that goes from light to dark pretty fast — shoplifting, cutting class and hot-wiring are kid's stuff compared with the jail, rape, murder, and all sorts of capital-A atrocities that await. Add online dalliances with a stranger named Jamey to their dynamic duo and things go lethal rather rapidly. The plot, one might say, is not for the fainthearted.

Except that maybe ultimately it is. There is a safety and predictability here — Jamey isn't who he says he is, for example — and when the turning point comes, you see it a mile away, the near-classical bad-girls-cautionary-tale thematics. The stylish packaging of the title and cover and the swagger of the prose in the end don't seem as subversive as they should be. Within Hunter there is the potential (Think: the best of Denis Johnson, Bobbie Ann Mason, George Saunders and Fiona Maazel) when it comes to bringing transcendence to grit, but often here the art borrows more from reality television and hipster appreciation of it.

"Ugly Girls" reminds me a bit of filmmaker Harmony Korine in his "Gummo" period — his near triumph of style over substance — but Hunter would do even better to study his even stronger "Spring Breakers," where substance and style merge and do that curious thing that the best fiction does: leave the audience fully satisfied as well as completely taken aback.

Hunter definitely writes magnificent sentences: "If you let your eyes lose focus everything becomes a smear... the teacher a moving smear of gray and brown, his voice like someone was rubbing an eraser over it: the words were there but you had to work hard to find them." But the language is often too studied, almost too pitch-perfect.

In creative writing classes we warn of the sleaziness of the adverb, but we never quite discuss the many cheap thrills of local color worship. In Jorge Luis Borges' 1951 lecture "The Argentine Writer and Tradition," he warns of the scourge of the "cult of local color." More than 60 years later, at most every MFA workshop in America, writers strive for local color and the veneer of authenticity it provides.

Hunter's greatest weakness here is falling into this trap. All the white-trash paraphernalia staples are here and packed into nearly every sentence: "the rising sun the color of pineapple candy, no more than a fingernail on the horizon" could be something if everything else wasn't all candy dispensers and nail clippers. Hunter layers it all on: Cheetos and Wal-Mart, lip liner and heavy bass, even the redneck cliché of a McDonald's being the most special-occasion meal. As with Korine's work, at a certain point you feel a casual disdain for lower class white America that's not just local color but takes fetish to fashion; but costumes alone can't make characters.

At one point Hunter writes, "Perry knew what people thought when they heard the words trailer park." One wishes the author herself could unlearn them and see it all afresh again. Only when Hunter escapes the safety of local color and embraces the raw and risky does "Ugly Girls" shine darkly, as ugly as she wants to be.

Khakpour is the author of "The Last Illusion."

Ugly Girls
A novel

Lindsay Hunter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 240 pp., $25

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