Ugly to Start With is a novel of the 1970’s, written in the first person by teenager Jason Stevens, who dreams of being an artist and getting out of Harper’s Ferry,
Full disclosure: I am basically a genre reader. I love mysteries, science fiction, horror, police procedurals, etc. I used to read “serious” literature, but I seldom do any more. I am less interested in a character’s inner being or with a writer’s pyrotechnics than I am in what happens. I love intricate plots, I hate inner monologues and literary flashiness. I do not even care much about character development these days, that sine qua non of serious writing.
That said, this is one of the finest novels I have ever read. John Michael Cummings has created an irresistible literary work that can stand with the best.
I guess it qualifies as a novel, although it is really a series of short stories, each one different and each one truly excellent, all connected but not with a single plot line. It reminds me of Susan Straight’s marvelous Aquaboogie, and it is Susan Straight who leads off the list of adulatory quotes about this book.
Although the narrator is a teenager, this is not really a young adult novel. One story deals with a parent’s unfaithfulness, one with sexual impropriety in the community, one with spousal abuse, one with interracial sex, and one with Jason using a deaf character to practice his Tourette’s imitation. Even the stories with less adult topics are not really written with the teenage reader in mind. Jason lays out some very uncomfortable events often with little indication that he understands the ramifications. He is, after all, a teenager, but not a teenager who sees with the eyes of an adult, so often the case with writing like this.
Jason’s family pretty much defines dysfunctional. His mother (“I could see every one of her forty-seven years whittled out to the end of her nose.”) lives one step away from reality and his father doesn’t allow any visitors into his house because he is ashamed of it (although he claims he doesn’t want anyone to see his collection of precious, restored guns). He either fails to fix things to make it better or he fixes them in a half-assed way, such as when he installs sewage plumbing above ground using clear plastic pipe, which exposes the family’s flushes to anyone watching the pipes, not to mention that the pipes often come apart, spewing toilet paper and worse over the yard. The mother, in a later story, moves one-half step closer to reality by evicting the father from this house.
Every story is a gem, but my two favorites are “The Scratchboard Project” and “Ugly to Start With.” The former finds Jason going “across the tracks” to Bolivar to the home of a black family to sketch his schoolmate Shanice for an art project he needs to do well on in order to pass art. His reasons for choosing Shanice, whom he does not really like and doesn’t even know very well, remain obscure to him until Shanice exposes them. The dialogue is crisp and perfect, and the story is as good a study in race relations as I have ever read. The unusual resolution is made to seem inevitable by Cummings’ precise writing.
The title story, especially for animal lovers, is a heart-wrenching look at how we can treat those we once loved when they no longer make us comfortable.
Garry Puffer is a former math teacher who has lived in Michigan, New York, and California. He is the author of Billy Bumbry’s Year, President Reagan’s Final Message, and The Desert Croquet Player, all available at Amazon.com as well as elsewhere.