California Literary Review

The Flawless Skin of Ugly People by Doug Crandell

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December 17th, 2007 at 10:37 am

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The Flawless Skin of Ugly People: A Novel
by Doug Crandell
Virgin Books, 224 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Looking Beneath the Surface

Doug Crandell’s debut novel is a timely broadside at the modern obsession with plastic appearance, the terrifyingly homogenous world of the tucked and plucked and pulled. Crandell treats people the culture likes to dismiss as freaks with dignity and respect; his characters are not objects for mass scorn, pity or amusement. He asks important questions about the values that this society has chosen to champion: How do you live in a world which reserves no room for those who do not fit the accepted and acceptable mould? What do you do when you have failed the pulchritude test? Can we ever learn to not judge by surfaces?

Hobbie suffers from acne vulgaris, which has forced him into a retreat from life. ‘Other than work, I rarely go out, avoiding people as much as possible. I shop the 24-hour Wal-Mart, rent movies from the Internet, and basically stay hidden as much as I can. Having to endure people’s stares is what has made my jobs so tortuous. Sometimes I dream about pulling on this magical mask that makes my face flawless.’ Hobbie has led an itinerant life with his overweight partner Kari, moving from one teller job to the next. They have lost themselves in ‘American suburbia,’ remained away from sight as much as possible, ‘never in one place long enough to develop euchre partners or hook up with another couple to take trips with.’

But Kari is now in the ‘fat farm’ in Durham – otherwise known as the Center for Healthy Living. There she is developing a ‘lean and disciplined’ view of the world, ‘shrinking down to half the size.’ She writes daily letters to Hobbie in which she prints her new weight in the corner. But Hobbie is not allowed to contact her; he watches the words in the letters become less numerous: ‘like her weight … just bite-size now.’ Kari’s letters are melancholic, reflective, inquiring. She asks Hobbie difficult questions about the meaning of their relationship, and is locked into an exploration of the psychological reasons behind her weight gain. Of course, there are reasons, and it is no surprise given the pervasive influence of psychoanalysis in the US, that Crandell chooses to locate them in childhood trauma – one which Kari shares with Hobbie. But this is not the sort of fiction which seeks to wallow in disturbance; Crandell doesn’t celebrate the wearing of suffering as a badge of honour. At one point Hobbie muses: ‘people define themselves by their tragedies, by the artefacts of some horrible event, which become more and more mundane as they move from apartment to house, from the ‘80s to the ‘90s and on into a brand-new century. It could be a curl of hair glued to a prayer card or a keepsake urn full of a twin brother’s ashes – all of them morph and blend until they turn into just another knick-knack or mantel display.’ At another moment, when Hobbie beings to see that his traditional manner of release, picking at his spots, is bringing him no relief, he expresses a simple, yet refreshingly positive philosophy, a way out of the constriction of mental anguish: ‘maybe getting better is simply a decision every moment to do just that.’

After being attacked by a bear, Hobbie goes to live with Roth, Kari’s father. But when Roth has a stroke Hobbie becomes the carer. In this task he is joined by Sally, Kari’s semi-estranged mother, and Sally’s boyfriend. Sally is ‘a planner, a thoughtful idealist, and a confident free spirit;’ Donny appears to be little more than an aggressive, boorish, and infantile man. This confluence of people and emotions forces a change: Hobbie cannot accept his lack of contact with Kari. With Roth revealing things to Hobbie that he’s kept hidden for many years, and Sally attempting to describe the reasons for her flight from the life of her family, Hobbie makes the decision to find Kari, who has left the Center but not returned to him. The four of them set out in search of her.

The Flawless Skin of Ugly People is strongest in its opening chapters, when the reader is taken deeply into Hobbie’s psychology. Crandell has an appealing style, quiet and meditative, and is able to generate an extraordinary empathy for his characters. He creates an all too recognisable space where seemingly good people allow silences to build, where trust loses its value, and honesty is lost. However, when the novel becomes a hybrid, part family saga and part road trip, it loses its way a little, slipping into easy melodrama which almost overwhelms the work, unsettling the earlier understated tone. There is a sudden accumulation of overly dramatic events which flirts with the farcical. But Doug Crandell is sensitive to the ways in which we attempt to understand, love and care for another; he is also attuned to the many different forms of escape we engage in: from who we appear to be, from what others demand of us, from what we do to others and what is done to us. He builds a network of lies and revelations and competing needs that is convincing, moving, and tender, and while the conclusion to the novel is predictable and a little too neat, it is satisfying.

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