I NEVER WANT to read Ugly Girls again. The debut novel from Chicago author Lindsay Hunter is a slim, mean book that opens with two teenage girls, Baby Girl and Perry, in the act of stealing a red Mazda. That's not a spoiler by any stretch, but it is a typical day for Hunter's protagonists who, given the choice between returning to their messy, dysfunctional homes and stealing cars, choose stealing cars every time.
Ugly Girls lives on the margins of an unspecified Floridian landscape with too much humidity and not enough of anything else. It lives in trailer parks, truck stops, stolen cars, late-night diners, and an anonymous forest off the freeway. These places make up Baby Girl and Perry's universe, and that freeway is Gatsby's green light to Hunter's characters, a route of possible escape never taken. Never taken, because perhaps more than anything else, Ugly Girls is about invisible girls attempting to find any kind of real autonomy in a world that offers them none. Perry's mother is a sad drunk whose response to worrying about her daughter is to do nothing for her, and her stepdad works nights at a prison. Baby Girl's parents are dead, and her brother has lost all of his mental faculties in an accident. Many times throughout the book, Perry considers ditching Baby Girl and going home, only to remember that there is no there there.
Crapalachia author Scott McClanahan has described Ugly Girls as "the first great 21st-century novel about the dirty realities of class," and that's about right. It's a disturbing portrait of girls made vulnerable by their circumstances, and made mean by their awareness of that vulnerability. When they become targets for Jamey, an online sexual predator, it's merely the latest in a series of ongoing victimizations, and they fight back. But there's no triumph in it, because when Baby Girl and Perry do seize any kind of power, it is with the careless violence enacted so often against them.
In this sense, Ugly Girls becomes an infinite loop of uninvestigated and unbroken violence, a ledger full of crimes and disappearances that go unreported in a community where no one has much to gain from involving the legal system.
If the world Hunter describes seems hopeless, it's also alive and nuanced. It's telling that her most sympathetic characters end up being Perry's prison-guard stepfather, Jim (a surprisingly empathic character screaming to be played by Woody Harrelson if Ugly Girls is ever made into a movie), and a reformed pedophile who warns Jim about Jamey's advances on Perry.
Ugly Girls is also innovative in its structure. Hunter's previously written poetry and flash fiction, and it shows: This is a novel written through the accumulation of perfect, short flashes into the lives of the characters. These sections are too short to really be chapters—most are only a few pages long, if that, and they aren't titled, or even numbered—but they're just the right length to sink into Ugly Girls with immediacy and precision. Another sign of Hunter's past as a poet is the stark perfection of her language. When she describes Baby Girl and Perry's first car theft, writing, "The lock went with a soft pop... an exploding cosmos of possibility. White tails of glitter shooting out," you may not want to keep reading, but you can't look away.