Los Angeles Times
LULI McMULLEN is one of those kids who are always alone even when they’re not. The 13-year-old, who might be described as a happy-go-lucky fatalist, has erected the defense mechanisms, figured out all of the stratagems she needs to see her through another day, another week.
Luli lives in Lancaster, Neb., one of those parched and barren Midwestern locales that stands in for everything that’s godforsaken and passed by in “Hick” by Andrea Portes. Luli’s parents are rip-roaring drunks who have made of the local bar a second home. Luli is always present whenever the eighth or ninth drink rolls around. “You can almost see the surliness rising up through the smoke, coming off the pool table.”
These early scenes in the bar are among the best in this uneven but promising debut novel, which is narrated by the knowing and cynical Luli. Portes’ protagonist sees things the way smart youngsters do. Of Ray, the burly, freckled bartender, for example, she says, it’s as if “Strawberry Shortcake had a big brother that looked like he wanted to kick your ass.” She reads her parents’ ashtray like a weather vane. “Empty ashtray means partly sunny…. Full ashtray ain’t bad either…. Full ashtray with a lit cigarette?…. That lit cigarette means the storm’s rolling in. Brace yourself.”
Luli, in other words, has seen far too much, and she would prefer not to see any more. Her mother, Tammy, was once a great beauty, but now she needs affirmation from men other than her violent husband, Nick. They both take off separately, leaving Luli to her own devices. And she lights out for the wide open spaces because there’s “something just waiting to throw me into the sun.”
From this point on, “Hick” becomes a demented road trip: Luli is picked up in turn by Eddie Kreezer, a surly and darkly sensual cowboy, and Glenda, a manic cocaine user with a con man’s cunning. Eddie and Glenda, as it turns out, are bound together, although Luli doesn’t get wind of it until much later. In the meantime, she’s jostled by these two — by their pathetic dependency on her — until she begins to feel reassured by their clinginess, even if it is David Lynch-creepy at times. “You can’t see it now,” says Luli of Eddie, her potential paramour, “but let me put him in hair and make-up and dust him off and shine the light…. [H]e’ll dip his Stetson and call me sweetheart and darlin’ and sugar-pie and you may not see it yet, but believe me, just wait, it’ll hit you like a ton of bricks.”
They appear at first to be saviors, but they wind up behaving like her parents, coming and going without a thought for Luli. It’s ugly stuff, but Portes, to her credit, allows Luli to derive some mordant humor out of the situation; without it, the book would just be another catalog of white-trash oppression and deprivation. Her parents are awful, granted, but Luli realizes that a life with Eddie and Glenda would be far worse. “I am just a two-bit hick from the heartland but I do know one thing, my mama did not raise me to be skankin it in skanksville with the skanks.”
Luli is self-aware but not entirely sure of herself; she weighs the benefits of her new life against the disadvantages, of which there are many. Her hunger for a normal life — of any kind of experience other than neglect, really — is satisfied in a twisted fashion that is clearly untenable in the long term. But some peace of mind is won, and Luli finds her way. By herself.
The narrative tropes in this coming-of-age novel are familiar, but Portes pulls back from preciousness just when things get sticky. The book would have benefited from fewer little-girl reveries — digressions about dancing on wedding cakes and the like. Still, “Hick” is a bracing drama, a study in tenacity against the gnarled teeth of domestic storms.
* Marc Weingarten is the author of “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote & the New Journalism Revolution.”
San Diego Union Tribune
Reading Andrea Portes makes you feel like your elbows are damp from having been resting in beer-bottle condensation rings on a wobbly table in the kind of dive bar where sooner or later – and bet on sooner – somebody’s going to have a pool cue broken over his head, and the guy wielding the cue is going to know enough to swing it from the narrow end because it’s not the first time for him or, for that matter, the guy getting clocked.
Portes is the woman sitting at the table with you – young, a little drunk and too smart by three-fourths. She’s reeling off a real spellbinder about a few horrific days in her grimy-blue-collar upbringing in a rural Nebraska so sere and bleak and emotionally sandblasted that it’d make an off-the-shelf trailer park look like Rancho Santa Fe.
Actually it’s not Portes, but Luli McMullen, the narrator of Portes’ knockout – as in a right cross to the jaw – debut novel “Hick”(Unbridled Books, 245 pages, $14.95). Luli is but 13 when the story takes place, ignorant as the day is long but savvy as a long stretch of a lonely night. And I don’t even write like this, but Portes does, and does she ever, and it’s catching. Maybe I can shake it off by typing out some pure, uncut, better-than-street-quality Portes:
“If you threw Elvis and a scarecrow into a blender, topped the whole thing off with Seagram’s 7 and pressed dice, you would make my dad. He’s got tar black hair and shoulder blades that cut through his undershirt like clipped wings. He looks like a gray-skinned, skinny-rat cowboy and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am, maybe sorta kinda, keep it secret, in love with him.”
“Whatever this spider web is I’ve walked into, it has nothing to do with me. These looks, this staring goes back. This is part of some unspoken rambling going back to before time. Just another fight and looky-me, thrown in the center. I feel right at home.”
“I walk in and it’s just like I walked into a commercial for forest fires.”
“There’s something going on, new and tingly, that is somehow on the other side of justice and reason and everything my mama told me about what you should and should not do.”
Luli lives in a tumbledown farmhouse with her good-for-drinkin’ dad and desperate, coulda-been-a-small-town-beauty-queen mother, both of them dry husks from the death of a newborn son. Dry, that is, when not sodden with whisky, and as the family falls to pieces like their house would if you pulled out about three nails, Luli takes to the road, looking to hitch to Las Vegas and find herself a sugar daddy.
She doesn’t get far. Her first ride is with a twisted, leering, goofball snake of a man named Eddie Keezer, and for all of Luli’s dad and Luli’s mom and a caring grifter named Glenda and even Luli herself, Eddie is Portes’ great creation. Or rather, Eddie, and Luli’s impossibly complex, near infinitely layered hormone-and-dread-drenched relationship with him. For “Hick” is in the end a bold, brash, up-yours coming-of-age story rubbed raw with gritty sexual awakening, a lowlife erotic nightmare terrifying in its out-front rassling with, writhing with, feelings and confusion and desires we just don’t want to look at 13-year-old girls and think about.
But there they are. And there Luli and Eddie are. And there Portes and “Hick” are. Portes studied creative writing at UCSD and more down-to-earth living in rural Nebraska, and clearly learned a whole lot of something somewhere. “Hick” comes so very close to being overwritten – it’s not necessarily a compliment to say that there’s a neato one-liner in just about every paragraph – but Portes, teetering on the edge of her keyboard, never slips into self-indulgence.
You kind of get the feeling she likes the danger, though. Luli surely does, sitting there in the bar, telling you her story. Pretending she’s not eyeing the guy with the pool cue.
Books & Writers Junior- Bibliomaniac
AUDIO click here to listen: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2007/aug/16/debut-novel-follows-a-young-girl-on-the-road-to/
Maureen Cavanaugh (Guest Host): A lot of America doesn’t fit into the mainstream. There are people and places that seem to have slipped off the map and exist in an alternate universe. Writer Andrea Portes takes us by the hand and leads us into that world in her debut novel Hick . It’s the story of 13-year-old Luli who hits the road, on a journey to Las Vegas and a new life.
It’s not the type of journey most 13-year-old girls take in books, but the writing and the reality of the novel have impressed both readers and critics. Andrea Portes will read from her novel Hick this Saturday afternoon (August 18 th ) at The Ink Spot in the Art Center Lofts on 13 th street in downtown San Diego.
“In her debut novel, Portes paints a poignant picture of a teenage girl fleeing her past and landing in Vegas, where she’s forced to grow up fast.”— OK MAGAZINE
“A bracing drama, a study in tenacity against the gnarled teeth of domestic storms.”
— The Los Angeles Times
“Reading Portes alongside Raymond Carver, for example, might show you just how overrated an author he was… there are a number of individual, glittering sentences that should simply be framed and hung in the Smithsonian.”— Peter Quinones, The Bohemian Aesthetic
“Hick by Andrea Portes is the best literary release of 2007, hands down…Completely blew me away…do not not read this book. this is a spectacular debut.” — Tony Dushane, Drinks with Tony
“HICK is a terrific and addictive read. It just barrels along, fueled by the adrenalin and enthusiasm of its youthful narrator.” –The Kansas City Star
“The repetition of phrases and words is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein with a lyrical quality all it’s own. With a meandering style that is part stream of consciousness and part commentary, Luli’s journey offers up a view of America that is at once starkly revealing in its accuracy and unnerving in its honesty. HICK is a simple book with a subtly complex message that works as social commentary as well as a sort of disturbing coming of age.” – The Celebrity Café
“Hick is an engrossing coming-of-age novel by Andrea Portes…It’s an auspicious beginning from a writer who knows a good story and how to tell it. Impressive…Luli is so well-drawn and her voice so original and authentic that the reader can’t help but get caught up in her story.”– Dallas Morning News
“Portes’ writing and Luli’s courage make this book a standout and, at times, beautiful novel.”
– The Omaha World Herald
“[A] smart and sassy tale.” — The Oregonian
“Portes is an edgy writer whose talent is apparent on every page. Her honest, raw portrayal of Luli is harrowing, yet Portes also punctuates many of her observations with a keen and jaded humor. Hick announces the arrival of an exciting young voice. Portes’ snappy prose shines through despite the disturbing plight of young Luli…” —The Rocky Mountain News
“Hick, by Andrea Portes, is an extremely-well written novel whose clever dialogue is both hilarious and pathetic… Hick is fast paced, it is original, it is an outstanding novel of perseverance and courage” – Blogcritics Magazine
“An exceptional debut effort and hopefully the beginning of a great career.” — Dan Wickett, EmergingWriters.net
“It’s Luli’s musings on her life, and its meaning, that lie at the heart of this brilliant first novel…” — Taconic Newspapers
“It’s the detached out-of-body point of view that allows understatement rather than melodrama to make passages stand out and eventually drive a tragic spike through the heart.” – Silent City
“Saucy and gritty.” — bookreporter.com
“[A] heartbreaking tale of growing up in an alcoholic household in rural Nebraska. The teen narrates her picaresque coming-of-age story in an authentic voice, liberally sprinkled with grammatical errors, Western accents, and creative profanity. The short chapters, well-drawn characters, and natural-sounding dialogue give the book a cinematic atmosphere….Luli is real and likable; her honesty, insecurities, and coping mechanisms will have readers rooting for her throughout the story. Hick is filled with difficult themes: sexual exploitation, unsavory adults, drug use, and poverty, but Luli keeps her chin up and embodies the human will to survive. This is an ultimately hopeful story that will appeal to teens who like problem novels and contemporary realistic fiction.” — School Library Journal
Hollywood Reporter & REUTERS Option
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Producers Steven Siebert and Christian Taylor have optioned the best-selling novel “Hick,” by first-time author Andrea Portes.
“Hick,” published in 2007 by Unbridled Books, was recently named among the best adult books for high school students by the School Library Journal. The coming-of-age story centers on 13-year-old Luli McMullen, who runs away from her ramshackle Nebraska home after being abandoned by her deadbeat parents and heads to Las Vegas. Along the way, she learns the truth about American rootlessness and discovers both the power and peril of her own sexual curiosity. Portes is in talks to adapt the screenplay.