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Brief book reviews - Andrea Portes

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"Hick" by Andrea Portes; Unbridled Books; 245 pages; $15.

Reading Andrea Portes makes you feel like your elbows are damp from having been resting in beer-bottle condensation rings on a wobbly table in the kind of dive bar where sooner or later - and bet on sooner - somebody's going to have a pool cue broken over his head, and the guy wielding the cue is going to know enough to swing it from the narrow end because it's not the first time for him or, for that matter, the guy getting clocked.

Portes is the woman sitting at the table with you - young, a little drunk and too smart by three-fourths. She's reeling off a real spellbinder about a few horrific days in her grimy blue-collar upbringing in a rural Nebraska so sere and bleak and emotionally sandblasted that it'd make an off-the-shelf trailer park look like Hollywood.

Actually it's not Portes, but Luli McMullen, the narrator of Portes' knockout - as in a right cross to the jaw - debut novel. Luli is but 13 when the story takes place, ignorant as the day is long but savvy as a long stretch of a lonely night. And I don't even write like this, but Portes does, and does she ever, and it's catching. Maybe I can shake it off by typing out some pure, uncut, better-than-street-quality Portes:

"If you threw Elvis and a scarecrow into a blender, topped the whole thing off with Seagram's 7 and pressed dice, you would make my dad. He's got tar black hair and shoulder blades that cut through his undershirt like clipped wings. He looks like a gray-skinned, skinny-rat cowboy and I would be lying if I didn't say that I am, maybe sorta kinda, keep it secret, in love with him.

"Whatever this spider web is I've walked into, it has nothing to do with me. These looks, this staring goes back. This is part of some unspoken rambling going back to before time. Just another fight and looky-me, thrown in the center. I feel right at home."

"I walk in and it's just like I walked into a commercial for forest fires."

"There's something going on, new and tingly, that is somehow on the other side of justice and reason and everything my mama told me about what you should and should not do."

Luli lives in a tumbledown farmhouse with her good-for-drinkin' dad and desperate, coulda-been-a-small-town-beauty-queen mother, both of them dry husks from the death of a newborn son. Dry, that is, when not sodden with whisky, and as the family falls to pieces like their house would if you pulled out about three nails, Luli takes to the road, looking to hitch to Las Vegas and find herself a sugar daddy.

She doesn't get far.

Her first ride is with a twisted, leering, goofball snake of a man named Eddie Kreezer, and for all of Luli's dad and Luli's mom and a caring grifter named Glenda and even Luli herself, Eddie is Portes' great creation. Or rather, Eddie, and Luli's impossibly complex, near infinitely layered hormone-and-dread-drenched relationship with him.

For "Hick" is in the end a bold, brash, up-yours coming-of-age story rubbed raw with gritty sexual awakening, a lowlife erotic nightmare terrifying in its out-front rassling with, writhing with, feelings and confusion and desires we just don't want to look at 13-year-old girls and think about.

But there they are.

And there Luli and Eddie are.

And there Portes and "Hick" are.

Portes studied creative writing at the University of California San Diego and more down-to-earth living in rural Nebraska, and clearly learned a whole lot of something somewhere.

"Hick" comes so very close to being overwritten - it's not necessarily a compliment to say that there's a neato one-liner in just about every paragraph - but Portes, teetering on the edge of her keyboard, never slips into self-indulgence. You kind of get the feeling she likes the danger, though. Luli surely does, sitting there in the bar, telling you her story. Pretending she's not eyeing the guy with the pool cue.

- Arthur Salm
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Popular tags:

 villages  Nebraska  swings  dads  Hollywood  University of California San Diego

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