While it's tempting to cast her stories as examinations of modern-day misfits and outcasts—think Flannery O'Conner meets The People of Walmart—Hunter's creations would bristle at this characterization. Either way, you're not likely to stumble across scenes like this one in the pages of The New Yorker:
"They drove over to the Walmart to do donuts in the employee parking lot. Baby Girl had once filled out an application to work there. They'd gone in to check on the status later that week and Baby Girl told the greeter to suck her dick."
In Hunter's sensational debut novel, Ugly Girls, Baby Girl and Perry are high schoolers from Hell. Perry is the pretty one. Baby Girl seeks a different kind of attention. She shaves her head and wears her brother's clothes "just to show the world how little she gave a fuck." They spend their days conspiring to cut class and their nights "thugging"—Baby Girl's euphemism for sneaking out, stealing cars and causing what passes for mayhem in their small, shit-kicked town.
"They ditched the Mazda on the side of the highway, near the exit headed back to where they'd left Baby Girl's car on a quiet street. Cars rushed by them as they walked along the shoulder, some honked, people on their way to work or home from work, probably none of them on the way back from an all-night bender like they had been on."
They're no Thelma and Louise, that's for sure. What makes the theft astonishing is the sheer purposelessness of the crime. They have no place to go and nowhere to be, so they drive to Denny's—a place they could get to a whole lot faster and easier in Baby Girl's car—to eat french fries and harass the wait staff. It might be the most joyless joyride ever, but for Perry and Baby Girl, it's better than being at home.
"The trailer was quiet and still; it felt to Perry like the preserved remains of a family long gone."
Perry's mother is a relapsing alcoholic who can't stay sober; Baby Girl's brother is recovering from a car accident that's left him a shadow of his former self. They require more care than the girls are equipped to give.
Perry's stepfather, Jim, works at a correctional facility. He tries not to bring his work home with him, so to speak, but isn't always successful. The prisoners "loved to find ways to fuck with a person. It's about control, triumph. This was something Jim understood. A man wearing a jumpsuit and shuffling around in plastic shoes and getting bent over if he ain't watching close needs to find a way to stay a man. It was a truth that rang clear as a bell across the countryside."
In the novel's opening pages, Jim strikes an inmate who asks him if he has a daughter, because "from time to time that bell rung true for him, too." Although his authority inside the prison is absolute, at home he's just another member of the working poor trying to support an alcoholic wife and a stepdaughter who can't stay out of trouble.
At the heart of Ugly Girls is a strange love triangle initiated by an online admirer who reaches out to Perry and Baby Girl. Driven by boredom, desperation and loneliness, the girls engage with the mysterious stranger, who calls himself "Jamey." When Perry and Baby Girl find out that Jamey has been flirting with them both, they compete for his attention, and it drives a wedge between the two girls. As Jamey's true identity is revealed, the story takes a darker turn.
Written with electric prose that practically pulses on the page, Hunter never stops raising the stakes, propelling the story to its riveting conclusion. Ultimately, Ugly Girls is about class. While rich girls get into the same kind of trouble as poor girls, there isn't a safety net for Perry and Baby Girl. There isn't even a bottom to hit. Once they start falling, they're lost.
Hunter's subject is nothing less than the control of bodies: girl bodies, boy bodies, bodies stuck somewhere in between. There are bodies locked up in prisons and bodies that are prisons. Bodies spilling over with desire. Bodies that don't know what's good for them. Bodies that betray their owners again and again and again.