Books

Book Review

‘Barbara the Slut: And Other People’ by Lauren Holmes

Lauren Holmes’s debut story collection is good from start to finish.
Beowulf Sheehan
Lauren Holmes’s debut story collection is good from start to finish.

I can count the number of pet narratives I’ve enjoyed on one hand. The latest and funniest work of fiction to qualify is “My Humans,” one of the 10 stories included in Lauren
Holmes’s excellent debut collection, “Barbara the Slut: And Other People.” Narrated by a seven-year-old rescue Lab named Princess, it chronicles, without a trace of mawkishness, the joy, pain, and epic disgust inherent in both young love and pet ownership.

Princess is a charmingly dogged narrator. Although she provides a real-time account of a disintegrating relationship, she is only interested in food, stinky things, and cuddles, so she has no idea of the small and large human tragedies unfolding around her. It’s delightful. Through a dog’s eyes, heartbreak means more hugs, and questionable takeout becomes an occasion for delight: “Later, I am in the human part of the bed. Mike’s arms are around me. There are noises and good smells inside of Mike. He goes to the bathroom. He is back. ‘Ugh,’ he says. ‘You don’t think that meat is really roadkill, do you, girl?’ He leaves and comes back and leaves and comes back. He squeezes me.”

Despite her limitations, Princess is the collection’s best-adjusted narrator.

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Holmes’s human protagonists, each of who tells her story in the first-person, face bigger struggles. Most are self-centered young adults struggling to adjust childish expectations to accommodate the displeasures of grown-up reality. Careers stall. Parents disappoint. Love fails or doesn’t materialize at all.

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Thankfully, each of these stories is suffused with enough humanity and humor to stave off bleakness.

Take “Desert Hearts,” a story about a newly minted lawyer named Brenda who moves to San Francisco with her fiancé. She doesn’t “have the heart” to practice law. In fact, she explains, “I almost didn’t even have the heart to take the bar, but I found it when my dad threatened to cut me off. And then he cut me off right afterward anyway, because he said it was time to get a job, and if I didn’t want either of the jobs he had found for me, I was on my . . . own.”

While the fiancé is working long hours as a corporate lawyer, Brenda gets a job in an adult store, the titular Desert Hearts, where she must convince her boss that she is a lesbian in order to remain employed. At once an irreverent comedy of errors and a mournful coming-of-age tale, the story drives home the ambivalence of settling into adulthood while inspiring wry chuckles with sex toys such as the Eroscillator 110. Like Princess, Brenda must divine the murky motivations of those who keep her fed.

Jane, the hearing-impaired protagonist of “Jerks,” takes this failure of understanding to the collection’s most pronounced and painful extreme. While staying with her father the summer before grad school, Jane embarks on an affair with her high-school crush while attempting to babysit Timmy, an eight-year-old with a cochlear implant.

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Jane has terrible problems communicating with both Timmy and his harried mother, who are perhaps more trouble than they’re worth.

“[It] was becoming increasingly apparent that there was to going to be no deaf mentor-deaf mentee relationship,” Jane reflects, following an afternoon of Timmy screaming at her. “Timmy was much deafer than I was, he was doing much better than I had, and he was a little [jerk].”

Who may or may not be a jerk is another of the book’s major themes.

From a girl smuggling Victoria’s Secret underwear into Mexico for her feckless mother, to a woman whose pit bull likes her boyfriend more than she does, to a recent college grad trying to figure out why he hasn’t slept with his closest female friend, it’s often unclear whether Holmes’s protagonists aren’t just as bad as the people making them uncomfortable.

Though the book is thick with imperfect characters, the same cannot be said for the stories contained therein: There isn’t a dud in the bunch. Holmes’s is a welcome, refreshing new voice in American fiction. Or, as Princess might put it, “There is a new smell and it’s an incredibly good smell.”

BARBARA THE SLUT: And Other People

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By Lauren Holmes.

Riverhead, 264 pp., $27.95

Eugenia Williamson can be reached at eugenia.williamson@gmail.com