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BOOK REVIEW : Down-Home Hair War Fought in the Tresses

HAIRDO by Sarah Gilbert (Warner Books; $17.95, 256 pages)

“Hairdo” is “Steel Magnolias” without the pathos; “Shampoo” sans Beatty; an antic Southern novel set entirely in Miss Ruby McSwain’s Celebrity Styling Shop in the town of StuckeyC.

Miss Ruby’s only serious rival for the town’s tresses is her cousin Gladys Bessinger, who owns the Tres Chic Salon directly across the square. The book would be perfect for reading under the dryer if the dryer hadn’t gone the way of the dirigible and the snail darter. Still, in Stuckey, Dippity-Do outsells mousse and many of Miss Ruby’s clients even insist upon a final spritz of Happy Hair: “not just hairspray . . . the real thing--lacquer. And for those of you who don’t know, and for those of you who forgot, lacquer will do the trick.”

As the novel opens, the Celebrity Styling Shop still is plastered with posters of convoluted updos, and the second busiest day of the week is Tuesday. If you have your hair cemented and baked into place on Tuesday, you can get through an entire week by sleeping with your head hanging over the bed, squashing the ruin under a hat for Sunday church, hiding all day Monday until Miss Ruby reopens the following morning. Of course, if there’s a special event on Saturday, you’ll visit the salon too, but Saturday is really reserved for the youngsters, while Tuesday is favored by the blue-rinse ladies, the backbone of both salons.

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Now, Miss Ruby hasn’t been totally impervious to the passage of time, even though she dresses for work in floor-length evening gowns. In addition to veteran stylist Yvonne, who treats hair like meringue and bewails the advent of the natural look, Miss Ruby employs Thurston, who has gradually lured Yvonne’s loyal patrons away with his magic blow dryer, reducing her virtually to shampoo girl.

Thurston is flamboyantly gay and proud of it. Though he gets most of the customers and all the best lines, this characterization seems as dated as the beehive. The staff also includes Ronder Jeffcoat, who returns to work after her husband Buck turns out to be a major life mistake. Miss Ruby had warned her, and though she charitably takes Ronder back when Buck turns out to be good for nothing but swilling beer in front of the TV, Ronder is demoted to bikini waxing--which, in the salon hierarchy, is tantamount to the mail room. (It’s never clear why bikini waxing is so popular with the Dippity-Do crowd, none of whom could possibly have worn a bikini since 1950, if then, but let it go.)

The plot, if that’s the word, centers upon fierce competition between Miss Ruby and her cousin Gladys. After a brief closure for alterations, Gladys reopens with every one of her booths dedicated to a different European country, each manned, in a manner of speaking, by stylists named Raphael, Carlos, Trevor, Wilhelm, Tonino and Lars of Norway.

In retaliation, Miss Ruby remodels the Celebrity Salon as the OK Hair Corral, outfitting Ronder, Yvonne and Thurston in cowboy and Indian costumes to administer the Wild Bill Hickok Cut, the Buffalo Bill Perm and the Billy the Kid Frosting Special.

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These radical innovations take place just as everyone is eagerly anticipating the annual Hair Show in Atlanta. By the time this crucial event rolls around, Thurston’s lover Duran has returned from a short stretch in prison and is able to join the party traveling south for the hair Olympiad, a journey that provides further opportunities for the sort of adventure often called madcap. In addition to the usual crew, the Atlanta convoy includes an alcoholic hair model from New York and two extraneous fellow travelers who play exceedingly minor roles, proving that a comic novel doesn’t need comic relief, but the precise opposite.

The winner of a South Carolina fiction award, Gilbert is not only a “registered cosmetologist” herself but has also worked as a model, a bartender and a car painter before “realizing that her background was perfect for that of a fiction writer.”

She may have a point. The definitive novel about car painting is still unwritten.

Next: Carolyn See reviews “Passing On” by Penelope Lively.

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