Barbara the Slut and Other People, by Lauren Holmes: let’s talk about sex

Review: Millenial angst and deadpan humour in a diverting debut collection of stories

Sat, Oct 17, 2015, 01:00

   
 

Book Title:
Barbara the Slut and Other People

ISBN-13:
9780008123031

Author:
Lauren Holmes

Publisher:
Fourth Estate

Guideline Price:
£12.99

Sex and sexuality are at the centre of Lauren Holmes’s witty debut collection, Barbara the Slut and Other People, a non-taxing read that uses humour and unusual perspectives to make an impact. The titular slut doesn’t appear until the final story, by which point readers will be sure that there is more to the character than an insulting stereotype. Holmes is a perceptive and sensitive writer who seeks to show the ironies of life.

The school bullies who brand Barbara – “ho, whore, skank, Barbara Lewinsky, sticky-fingers Murphy, but mostly they called me slut”– do so because of jealousy. The narrator is a good-looking, athletic straight-A student whose gets an early acceptance into Princeton. Complicating matters is her atypical logic when it comes to sex. Barbara sleeps with whomever she wants and believes that her one-time-only rule keeps men honest. A richly drawn family backdrop offers clues to her unusual mindset. For all her sexual exploits, it is Barbara’s love for her autistic brother George that defines her.

With a stripped down and abrasive prose style, Holmes’s writing leaves little to the imagination. These are not stories to sit and puzzle over, rather they embrace and entertain. The 10 stories, each of a similar length, bring few epiphanies. They offer instead snapshots of lives, most of them young and female, and sometimes indistinguishable from each other.

Lacking in nuance at times, the collection nonetheless delivers plenty of diverting episodes. From upstate New York, Holmes has an MFA from Hunter College, where she was mentored by Colum McCann, Peter Carey and Nathan Englander. Her work has appeared previously in Granta and Guernica.

Blurry lines

Weekend with BethKelly, Muscle and Pammy

More sex, or at least the lack of it, in Desert Hearts, where a work-widowed girlfriend pretends to be a lesbian to get a job in a San Francisco sex shop: “There were a million dildos in a million colours, in sizes from baby carrot to miniature log.”

Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall in Love considers the entanglements of casual sex. After going to the trouble of introducing her internet date to her man-hating pit bull, Pearl is disappointed when the guy tells her he only has a month left in America. Two weeks with him as a houseguest puts things in perspective. It’s a comic take on one of the book’s main themes: how desire can quickly turn stale.

It’s a similar story in I Will Crawl to Raleigh If I Have To, where a young woman eschews the easy route – literally – and drives , in a car falling apart, across states, to break up with her suffocating boyfriend to his face, and again, in Mike Anonymous, when married Mike shows up at a HIV clinic and demands a second test when the first result is negative. Angry and abusive to the staff, he returns hours later with a prostitute, who refuses to take the test unless she’s paid.

Difficult people and their difficult relationships appear in every story. In the poignant How Am I Supposed to Talk to You? a daughter travels to Mexico to tell her mother that she’s gay. Both women are leading secret lives, unable to open up to each other. The closeness and bravery of the young boys who dive from the cliffs in Acapulco contrast nicely.

In Jerks, the partially deaf narrator, Jane, returns to her hometown after a break-up. Babysitting for a deaf child and his harried mother could offer an easy redemption, but not in Holmes’s world where it results in more miscommunication and bitter rejection.

The young adolescent voice of New Girls suits the collection’s matter-of-fact tone. A sense of trying to fit in is amplified in a country – Germany – where the American narrator doesn’t speak the language. Constantly switching allegiances to win popularity, she creates a convincing teenage world of estrangement, Backstreet Boys concerts, French kissing and fake orgasm contests.

That fitting in is a constant struggle, no matter what age we are, seems to be the core message of Barbara. The most sensible narrator of the collection is the golden retriever Princess of My Humans. Her step-by-step account of moving into a new home where a relationship is on the brink gives a hilarious perspective on infidelity. “She smells different,” says Princess, sniffing out what Jenna has been up to long before Mike. “He lies down. I lick him. He doesn’t move. I lick him again. I go to the living room and eat the ice cream.” After the messy human lives encountered in this collection, Princess’s routine sounds like a blast.