Wednesday, October 31, 2012

become unsettling in fantastic ways

Just finished Jessica McHugh's PINS, and thought I'd share my thoughts about it here, especially since I haven't updated this blog in almost a month. In my defense, I've been hitting the gym and trying to get a steady exercise routine together, which the recent hurricane screwed up by shutting down city streets for two days. But I digress.

PINS is about Eva Finch, aka Birdie, a 21-year-old college dropout and frequent job quitter who decides, after breaking up with her over-serious boyfriend Scott and realizing that she's flat broke, to become a stripper. She ends up working at a strip club/bowling alley called Pins (of course) and befriending a few of her coworkers, who introduce her to the lifestyle, such as it is. Birdie grows to like stripping and even starts dating a hunky customer, but she's naturally put off from her new life when someone starts brutally killing strippers in the area and gloating about it on Twitter. The murders, the drugs, the subsequent relationship troubles, and the intrusions of her bourgie mom send the already unsure Birdie into something of a tailspin.

You'll probably want to shake Birdie and tell her to stop being such a goddamn idiot a few times during the course of this novel, but she packs a lot of charm and no shortage of wit into the narration (the whole novel is told from her POV). Cecil, her boss at Pins, is an interesting fellow too, although we don't see much of him, and the other strippers (especially Honey and Jade) are fun, if somewhat interchangeable in the beginning.
Birdie's ex-pageant queen mother, who fuels a lot of Birdie's self-esteem problems, is also worth mentioning here. She isn't a typical bitchy stage mom as much as someone who cares and wants to be helpful, but really doesn't know her daughter very well.

Since this is a plot-driven novel and the plot is rather brisk, there are elements of this book that I wish had gotten some more attention. The idea of a strip club/bowling alley hybrid is fabulous, and I'm honestly shocked that it doesn't already exist, but I felt like I was always getting rushed in and out of it as the plot demanded. I wanted, as a reader, to stay there and get a better, fuller idea of what a surreal and lowbrow place Pins must have been. League night there must have been a trip.

There were also times when the characters' voices blended together and it was hard to tell who was talking without dialogue tags. Snappy dialogue is great, but it can turn a good book into a bad Owen Wilson movie when it's distributed too evenly. PINS avoids that, thank god, but the other characters sound like Birdie's narration a bit too often, which is a natural consequence of first person POV - you spend an awful lot of time in the perspective of one character.

As for the murders and sex scenes, they're done pretty well; graphic, but not so much as to suggest that they're the only reason the book was written at all (a common pitfall of horror and splatterpunk). I did want more flashes of concrete writing in the murder scenes (or more accurately, body discovery scenes), which are a little jumbled with metaphors. More than once, it's hard to discern what poor Birdie is looking at. Which could be the point, I suppose, but these are also moments where the writing is too clever for its own good.

There are two arcs in PINS that are pitch-perfect, though: Birdie's confidence in her own body, which is nil at the beginning and healthy by the end, and her relationship with Honey, her best friend/reluctant love interest. In any other book, these would be pedestrian coming-of-age sideplots, but they both flourish in PINS, and the body image stuff speaks to a larger, mostly unspoken juxtaposition between pageants and stripping, which is more coarse but also more honest about what it really is.

Birdie's relationship with Honey is fascinating because of how it manages to be tense without any real anticipation; they see each other naked all the time and grind on each other as a job requirement. Watching them both stumble into real intimacy when they're both part of an industry that discourages it is oddly touching, probably because the writing lets its guard down in those moments.

Overall, PINS is a good read if you're into sex and murder, but you might find that the most interesting parts of the book have almost nothing to do with the main plot. Or, put another way, come for the titties and blood, stay for the character development...and more titties and blood.

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