Beth Nugent - The book is remarkable for its ability to sustain simultaneously a mordant black humor and a sense of utter pathos: the world of the novel is so ghastly as to be funny, while the heroine, or anti-heroine, is so pitifully vulnerable that we weep for her adequacy

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Beth Nugent, Live Girls, Vintage, 1997.

Following her critically acclaimed collection of short stories, City of Boys, Beth Nugent brings her dark and eerie vision to a powerful first novel.
Live Girls is the story of Catherine, in her twenties, who sells tickets in a run-down porn theater in a decrepit port city, A sign in the window of the seedy hotel where she lives reads Transients Welcome. Her only friend is Jerome, an anorexic drag queen who searches for love among the sailors.
As Catherine and Jerome set out for Hollywood, we witness -with equal horror and fascination -- their desperate attempt to find redemption in a world that offers them so little.
In haunting, stylized prose, Nugent takes us deep into her protagonist's psyche while painting a bizarre - yet oddly familiar - picture of a dissociated, disconnected America. Live Girls is a tour de force that will leave no one who reads it unshaken.


This book is seriously, direly under-appreciated. I remember the day the book came out and every year or so since then I go back and read a few pages of it and can’t believe how incredible it is. The characters are strange and quirky and completely original and the story itself is just incredibly heart-rending. By my accounting, Live Girls should be considered one of the best novels published in the 1990s. If you like Steve Erickson or Vollman’s The Royal Family, you’ll probably like this, too, but I wouldn’t limit the appeal of it there. - Matt Bucher

Alienated characters drift aimlessly through a bleak urban wasteland in Nugent's rather turgid first novel, whose flat, affectless tone becomes monotonous early. The narrator, Catherine, is a college dropout who works at an X-rated movie house and lives in a transient hotel. Catherine is obsessed by memories of her dead sister; likewise, the porn theater's owner, Dave, is obsessed with his former wife, whom he accidently killed. The closest thing to a friend in Catherine's life is Jerome, a self-absorbed transvestite hustler. Eventually, Dave produces his awkward, unsophisticated nephew, Danny, in the hopes that he and Catherine will somehow hit it off, rather wishful thinking considering both characters' utter inability to communicate. The extreme emotional isolation of everyone in the book makes it difficult for any sort of plot to develop, and a reader's empathy is pushed to the breaking point by such narcissistic characters. While Nugent mined very similar territory to great effect in her debut short-story collection, City of Boys, the material is not sufficient to propel this novel. - Publishers Weekly

Beth Nugent’s first novel, Live Girls, was published in April by Knopf. The book is remarkable for its ability to sustain simultaneously a mordant black humor and a sense of utter pathos: the world of the novel is so ghastly as to be funny, while the heroine, or anti-heroine, is so pitifully vulnerable that we weep for her adequacy.
Her name is Catherine, and she works in the ticket bubble of a seedy porn theater in the crumbling downtown core of a decaying Eastern city. Catherine is haunted both by her dead sister and by a weakly held conviction that somewhere beyond the ticket bubble there’s a good life to be had. She suffers from an acute failure of the imagination, however: depressed, bewildered, and lost, the only good life she can picture is a fuzzy reflection of the sort of existence “enjoyed” by those sickeningly happy families who populate bad ads on TV and get excited about Mylanta.
There is real horror here, in this destitution of mind and spirit, and it’s a brave writer who will take on such an empty soul and give her the controlling consciousness of a novel. That Live Girls is not only readable but riveting is due to Beth Nugent’s deft control of the detail: Catherine’s boss’s obsession with the greasy popcorn he attempts to sell his seedy patrons is just one of the good jokes that give verve and color to the book, but without softening the bleakness and desperation of Catherine’s plight.
Intricately constructed, rich in resonance and association, Live Girls has a complexity not immediately apparent, given the spiritual poverty and material squalor of the world it depicts. Catherine is a burnt-out case living in a contemporary American slum; but her apathy, her helplessness, her alienation all transmit vividly, as a function of her creator’s intelligence, and her wicked sense of humor. —Patrick McGrath

After her critically acclaimed stories in City of Boys (LJ 6/1/92), Nugent offers a very haunting first novel. Her work dwells deep in the inner psyche of the protagonist, twentysomething Catherine, whose key friends are Jerome, an anorexic drag queen; Dave, who owns a rundown porn theater that he feels portrays true art; and a cat. Catherine has led a very down-and-out life, yet ironically she seems unaware of her desperate situation. However, she's quite aware of everyone else's disconnection from society; as she states about her friend Jerome, "If I leave him now, he will be alone; he will fill his pockets with sand and walk into the waves." Weaving dark detail into her portrayal of all her characters, Nugent presents a life that is not always glamorous but is very real. A promising first novel; essential for most collections. - Vicki J. Cecil

Beth NUGENT'S 1992 short-story collection, "City of Boys," was acclaimed for the restraint and acuity with which it penetrated the lower depths of American urban life. Ms. Nugent brings those same qualities to her first novel, "Live Girls."
The very title is charged with the bleakest irony. It refers, on one level, to the lurid promise displayed on the marquees of the strip joints and porn theaters that provide the book's setting. On a deeper level, it is a sardonic description of the two sisters who dominate the story. One of them is our narrator, Catherine, a "live girl" in only the most literal sense of the word. A woman more devoid of joy, passion or engagement with life would be hard to imagine.
The other is her nameless dead sibling, who in an odd way has more life than Catherine, given the virulence with which she haunts her sister's tottering psyche -- and few psyches in recent fiction have tottered as much as Catherine's does. Ms. Nugent's remarkable achievement is to render Catherine's fragility and anomie with such harrowing precision that her emptiness throbs with morbid vitality: what we witness here are the pathetically inarticulate flailings of a very lost soul, going under for the last time.
There is little in "Live Girls" that could be called plot. Catherine works in the "ticket bubble" of a seedy porn-movie theater in a decaying Eastern city. Her employer is an inadequate but vaguely well-intentioned character named Dave, who apparently killed his first wife, though we learn almost nothing about that event. Dave attempts to bring Catherine together with his equally inadequate nephew, Danny, who works for the city, poisoning pigeons. Catherine spends most of her free time in an all-night cafe frequented by junkies, hookers, sailors and cops, a place amusingly called the Hygienic, where her one "friend" is Jerome, a transvestite. Home is a decrepit rooming house where she shares a bathroom with various ghastly misfits and failures.
Ms. Nugent handles Catherine's sad, sordid existence in a deceptively flat manner. The humor in her narrative is under fierce control and always carries a hollow, jangling echo; it is not so much laughter in the dark as laughter in hell. Nor are there any redeeming gusts of exoticism or eroticism or eccentricity to lift the tone from one of unremitting physical and moral squalor. Any impulse to romanticize low life has been ruthlessly excised, for the simple reason that Ms. Nugent's project is to gaze squarely into a black hole: the husk of a lost American dream of contented suburban family life, moderate prosperity and wholesome normality.
It is no new thing to tackle such subject matter, but an author takes a great risk when she selects banality as the defining characteristic of her narrator's interior world. Ms. Nugent is at pains to show that Catherine's fantasy life does not differ from her real life in its utter lack of color, zest and originality. The good life to which Catherine apathetically aspires is a gray, fuzzy reflection of the crassest of television ads. Dimly aware that the pursuit of happiness involves getting out of the city, she is incapable of properly imagining what her happiness would look like if she ever did get out. The clichs and platitudes that make up the great part of her thinking are shadows of the received images that spawned them.
Yet within this profoundly restricted world, a wealth of resonance and association is deftly evoked. For example, the one picture Catherine sticks on the wall of her ticket bubble is a newspaper photograph of a woman psychologist who spent a year in a cavelike room as part of an experiment in social deprivation. A year after coming out of her cave, the woman committed suicide. Catherine's bubble, indeed her entire life, is a sort of cave. But whereas in the Platonic metaphor to turn away from the cave's shadows is to pass from illusion into truth, no such prospect exists here. Rather, the insistent voice of the dead sister, calling Catherine to come to her, suggests that the only journey possible for this lost soul is into death, the deepest cave of all.
It is remarkable, then, that two-thirds of the way into the novel Catherine should attempt to escape her situation. She steals Danny's car and takes Jerome with her, telling him that they are going to -- where else? -- Hollywood. As a pastiche of the myth of the frontier, of the journey west into freedom and renewal, this extended episode is the grimmest of all the grim jokes in this savagely black comedy. American life has no second act for people like Catherine and Jerome. Their impulse to flight is no more than the blind, wild panic of moths before a flame.
The power of "Live Girls" stems in large part from the author's refusal to permit any stray sunbeam to penetrate the darkness of Catherine's underground world, whose denizens are "things that live in cracks, things that are caught in the space between alive and not alive." Ms. Nugent does not altogether avoid the risk inherent in working with such rigor and focus, which is that of overdetermination: in this case, of insisting on the tawdriness, the grotesqueness, the abjectness of everything in Catherine's world.
There is a hilarious dinner-party scene when Dave, as part of his matchmaking scheme, invites Catherine and Danny to his house. On their way in, Catherine notices that in the yard "a depressed-looking dog is attached by a short chain to a battered little doghouse." In this world, dogs are always depressed, their chains invariably short, their kennels all little and battered; but this hammering away at the shabbiness of every aspect and detail of things becomes wearying after a while, and is unnecessary. The reader knows only too well how dogs must live in Dave's neighborhood.
But "Live Girls" is far too well thought out and intricately constructed a novel for this to be a real problem. It rings solid and true throughout, an utterly convincing portrait of a profoundly depressed member of an urban underclass that is increasingly demonized by the social mainstream. By forcing us to imagine such a life, the novel fulfills one of fiction's central imperatives -- to expand our ability to understand and internalize experiences that would otherwise be alien to us. Its central metaphor, as the title suggests, is pornography. Its message is that when we live without hope, without spirit and without art, relationships necessarily degenerate into rituals of mutual fear and exploitation, and identity turns lifeless and wastes away. - Patrick McGrath

A spooky but emotionally numb first novel about a young woman's subconscious search for self, by short-story writer Nugent (City of Boys, 1992). The setting here hints at drama: Unsexy young Catherine, who's dropped out of a girls' religious college, is selling tickets in a run-down porno emporium owned by a supposed wife killer named Dave, in a dying northeastern city. But nothing happens: Catherine spends her long night shifts mooning over her mysteriously pale and bleak Ohio childhood and cutting out magazine pictures of pets to add color to her desperately empty life now. After work each midnight, she wanders down to the Hygenic Diner to watch the junkies and whores gather, and here she meets Jerome, a black anorexic transvestite queen whom the publisher's publicity copy characterizes as her best friend but who seems as indifferent or even hostile to her as everyone else in the book. Meanwhile, her boss Dave--who turns out to be a mild-mannered and fatherly figure who's proud to have a ""college girl"" working for him--fixes Catherine up with his nephew, Danny. But Catherine has other plans: She steals Danny's car, kidnaps a dying cat named Debby from another transient in her hotel, coaxes Jerome into the car, and drives to Florida, where she once visited her grandparents. End of story, except for the many grim flashbacks Catherine has of living with her handicapped and vicious younger sister, who was insanely jealous of anything Catherine ever had--which was very little--until she accidentally set herself on fire and died, while their parents continued to watch TV. ""Live girls"" is what Dave's porno theater is said to need to spruce up trade; the same can be said for the novel. - Kirkus Reviews
Beth Nugent, City Of Boys: Stories, Knopf, 1992.

A first collection of stories features the tale of a girl who flees her domineering mother and ends up in an obsessive love affair with an older woman; a teenager who must avoid the attentions of her middle-aged uncle; and others. A first collection.

Set in Midwestern suburbs, New York City and Florida, this accomplished debut collection homes in on girls and women struggling to cope with disappointment and emotional abandonment. Like the preteens in "The Cocktail Hour" and "Riding into Day," they may be the hapless daughters of alcoholics or the progeny of troubled marriages; they can't quite comprehend their creeping sense of doom. The adult protagonists are emotionally disconnected survivors of relationships gone sour; Terry, at the center of "Minor Casualties," has a lawn littered with the carcasses of animals killed by the cat her ex-boyfriend left behind. In the title story, one of the most powerful entries, a Midwesterner finds refuge from her oppressive mother in the arms of an older woman, but knows the affair is ephemeral. As the woman's former (male) lover tells the girl: "I was the one before you, and you're just the one before someone else." Nugent's oblique style reveals her characters' inner lives and renders them sympathetic without soliciting the reader's pity. At her best, writing from the points of view of young girls who long for love and acceptance, the author imbues her subjects' alienation with a rare depth of feeling. - Publishers Weekly

Nugent, whose stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Mademoiselle, as well as in The Best American Short Stories 1985 and other anthologies, opens a door in this first collection to a bleak world whose hopelessness weighs heavy at times, but whose characters linger in the memory. In the title story, a runaway girl struggles in the sexual grip of a possessive older woman; in ``Riding into Day,'' a young girl on a train with her parents agonizes through the twists and turns of their mutual resentment; in ``Abbatoir,'' a teenager abandoned by her mother chafes under her older brother's blundering, stifling protection. Nugent's stories, whether set on Manhattan's Upper West Side or in mid-American suburbia, share a landscape of despair in which adults coexist helplessly with their rage, abandoned children struggle to fend for themselves, and strangers prove manipulative or abusive or both. Nugent's greatest strength lies in her unusual supporting characters--the old, wheelchair-bound man in ``Another Country'' who spends his days following the voices of the tenants below him from room to room; the strange younger brother in ``At the End of My Life'' who torments his older sister with his antisocial behavior; even the pet cats in ``Minor Casualties'' that suddenly begin killing all the baby animals in the area--along with an unusual ability to evoke the squalor of life among the urban dispossessed. Her talent for revealing the unconscious intent behind every offhand gesture and casual remark transcends the few literary mannerisms that grow annoying with repetition (the casual forecasting of characters' fate in the middle of their tales; the frequent, uninspired connections drawn between sex and blood; the closing of the heroine's eyes at the end of a story), to make this uncompromising collection powerful and unforgettable as well. Weird, hypnotic, and highly promising. - Kirkus Reviews

Nugent has assembled a powerful collection of slice-of-life stories, many dealing with the mother-daughter theme. Most of the protagonists are young women, preadolescent to mid-teen, viewing impending womanhood as exhibited by their mothers. The mothers are all aloof, most commonly represented by ice cubes rattling in a drinks glass. In "At the End of My Life," a young girl is the only one able to moderate the behavior of her emotionally disturbed brother. When she is called back from college to deliver him to a special school, she reports, "I feel as if I have come home to find a pet savagely neglected in my absence." Strongly recommended, particularly for public libraries.
- Debbie Bogenschutz

'I'M 36,' announces a woman in one of Beth Nugent's stories called 'Locusts'. 'Who ever thought everything would be so awful?' This is a rare outburst in a collection that favours costive, emotionally inarticulate characters, but the woman's tone of bewildered misery is entirely representative. There's not a single happy person in Beth Nugent's short stories. And from story to story, the tenor and type of their misery stays pretty much the same. The author (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker) explores the gamut of emotions from A to B.
The Ur-Nugent tale is set in a stifling, Fifties America and concerns a nuclear family in a more or less advanced state of disintegration. There is a beautiful but remote mother, one of those bourbon- and perfume-scented women often found in the stories of John O'Hara and John Cheever, who is on the verge of middle age and nervous breakdown. There is a troubled, vulnerable son, engaged in some sort of black sheepery (homosexuality, drugs) and on his way to self-destruction. There is a shadowy or altogether absent father. And there is an adolescent girl - the narrator - who quietly observes the Oedipal soup while yearning for sexual adventure and escape.
The stories endlessly reshuffle this pack. In 'At the End of My Life' and 'Abbatoir', the mother and father have all but disappeared into the fog of their private unhappiness, leaving the focus on the brother and sister. In 'Another Country' and 'Cocktail Hour', the anguish of the mother- daughter bond assumes centre stage. In every instance, the familial tie is both cloying and insufficient. Nobody can give anybody else what they really need. 'Mother, I want to call out, Mother, I am dying,' the girl narrator says at the end of 'Another Country', 'but she is falling once again into the arms of a man she loves.'
With the exception of occasional lyrical outbursts like this, and a few lush, slightly over-wrought metaphors, Nugent sticks to the bleached, laconic style that constitutes the comme il faut of contemporary American short fiction. Sentences are brief and elliptical and arranged with the rhythm, but not the sense of syllogisms. Dialogue is choppy and dull, in a tense sort of way, to indicate the alienation of the characters; irrelevant details are piled up, emanating poignance and general meaningfulness: 'When I pick up my glass, it leaves a wet ring on the coaster.'
It's not clear how these mannerisms ever got to be so vogueish, although it seems probable that the work of Raymond Carver had something to do with it. In any case, they are hard going. The intense repetitiveness of theme and mise-en-scene in Nugent's stories - indicating the therapeutic unburdening of some hefty, autobiographical freight - is tiresome. But what finally defeats the reader is the Janet and John locutions and the screaming absence of subordinate clauses. - ZOE HELLER

Junkies, says the runaway girl who narrates the title story in City of Boys, "exit right out of every situation before it's even become a situation." The same might be said for many of the chillingly detached characters in Beth Nugent's perceptive and unsettling first collection. Through ten spare, haunting stories, Nugent captures the overwhelming sense her characters share of being trapped inside dull, cyclical, insect-like lives.
In "Locusts," a family is compared to seven-year locusts that "seem capable of little other than eating." The boys in "City of Boys" are "nervous as insects, always some part of their body in useless, agitated motion. . ." A disturbed and outcast boy in another story finds solace watching "the beetles and ants fight it out over a territory smaller even than his own."
Whether the setting is the flat Midwest where "the leaves of the trees seemed somehow locked into place" or Northeast city apartments crawling with "more roaches than there are moments of love in the world," Nugent creates a bleak emotional landscape that feels strange and yet strangely familiar.
Sally, the observant young narrator of "Cocktail Hour," moves from state to state with alcoholic parents who have the "same conversation on average of twice a week." When asked by teachers to tell about her travels, Sally reflects that "the America I have seen is exactly like itself. . . .The houses and the neighbors and the streets are all just exactly alike, without difference enough even to help me make something up."
Nugent's more hopeful characters seek release from their oppressively uneventful lives through sex -- looking for "someone to whom touching is all the reality of being," and yet finding this to be a different sort of trap. In the title story, the narrator who has run away from her mother becomes locked in an obsessive affair with an older woman. "That first time with her, I felt as though my mother was curled up inside my own body giving birth to me; each time she let me go, I made my way back inside her."
In "Abattoir," a woman senses that her first lover has gone through the same motions many times before. "He closes his eyes to kiss me, but I know he is thinking of his mother, and as his hand crosses my skin, what it touches disappears: my mouth, my eyes, my bones, they all disappear. . ."
Many of Nugent's characters experience the sensation of disappearing. Some resort to drastic means to convince themselves that they are indeed present. Annie, another of Nugent's lonely young girls, burns the hair off a doll belonging to her only friend, feeling disappointed when "there is no flame, only a crackle, as each hair sort of fizzles crisply down to the plastic head and goes out."
Though disappointment and boredom pervade the lives she portrays, Nugent manages to infuse her stories with a keen poetic charge. She can uncover startling imagery in the simplest domestic acts, such as tuning in a ballgame on TV ("he twists the color knob, turning the faces of the players bright red, then down to shades of black and white") or chopping vegetables ("I concentrate on the play of my fingers and the blade, my hand moving steadily back along the spine of a carrot, the knife relentlessly pursuing").
She is particularly original when rendering familiar places. In an elementary school, "children stare at figures on a dark board." In a college dormitory, "girls lie in the darkness just a few feet from the strangers who are their roommates."
Families, especially, live together as strangers. One girl wakes to "the world rushing by in a cluttered blur of objects," then remembers she is on a train trip with her embittered parents. "There was a time when her parents, having quarrelled, would turn to her with sad, shocked looks for all that they asked her to witness, but now it goes on as if she is not even there." By the end of the story, the girl looks into a mirror and finds, in fact, "no one there."
With her quietly nightmarish imagery, her dark deadpan humor, and her cold-eyed compassion, Beth Nugent vividly dramatizes her characters' profound detachment and disorientation. Her portrayals of everyday life have -- in a larger sense -- much the same effect as the cassette tapes made by a man in "Locusts," recording the incessant sounds of locusts outside his window: "There was something terrible about hearing it like that," his daughter thinks when he plays back the tapes. "For the first time, I realized what it was that we were listening to every minute of every day with no change in pitch or intensity, and for a few hours I could hear nothing else." - Elizabeth Searle

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