Book review: “Pins” by Jessica McHugh

Posted: December 12, 2012 in Books, Uncategorized, Writers
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pinsA homicidal maniac is killing strippers!

Technically, yeah, that’s the main plot point of Jessica McHugh’s very good novel Pins. But it doesn’t convey the feel of the book, or its considerable appeal.

If that’s all you knew about the Pins, you might go in expecting nothing but a pulpy horror novel – especially since publisher Post Mortem Press specializes in (quality) speculative fiction and horror.

And yes, the book does have its horrifying moments, particularly during a harrowing sequence at the end.

But much of the book is more of an authentic, unexpectedly poignant portrayal of young women going through the aimless years of their early 20s.

McHugh does a good job capturing both the fun and the low-level anxiety of that age. Her protagonist, Birdie, senses she should probably be doing more with her life than getting high and hanging out. Yet she’s in no particular hurry, since getting high and hanging out is pretty nice for the time being.

Birdie is a smart but unambitious young woman who’s aware that men find her attractive, but still haunted by an benevolently domineering beauty queen mother and memories of being fat when she was a child.

Disenchanted with her career options, which seem to consist of little more than telemarketing or waitressing, she takes a job at a strip club called Pins. (The name comes from both the bowling alley housed there, and British slang for a pair of legs.)

She parties with her friends, gets in relationships, learns the trade of an exotic dancer and gets by. Then somebody starts killing off her colleagues. And suddenly, survival is more than a matter of getting enough bills tucked in her g-string to pay for rent and groceries.

The juxtaposition between Birdie’s day-to-day routine and the stripper killer plot is intentionally jarring. It seems a little strange to be writing this, since I’m a big fan of genre fiction in general and horror in particular, but I found myself wondering if the book would be better without the horror element.

Ultimately, I decided that it belongs there. It serves as kind of a metaphorical wake-up call for Birdie about her purposeless life. And without it driving the plot, the book might have ended up as one more account of young slackers doing nothing in particular. I really don’t think the world was crying out for one more of those.

By far, my favorite scenes in the book took place in the strip club. I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, Tom! We BET you liked those scenes in the strip club! *Nudge nudge*”

Actually, those scenes deal more with the gritty details of working in one of those places, and a lot of them are distinctly UN-sexy. (Unless you’re turned on by descriptions of how the dancers have to be on the lookout for toilet paper scraps and tampon strings. If you are, please read some other blog, you sick f**k.)

McHugh drew on her own seven-month stint as an exotic dancer more than a decade ago for those scenes, and they have a lived-in, convincing feel. She does a good job of portraying the dancers as fully formed human beings, in contrast to the sexed-up caricatures they portray on the club’s stage.

The book is also admirably free of editorializing about the concept of working as a stripper. McHugh presents it as neither inherently exploitative, nor inherently empowering. It’s simply a job where young women take off their clothes for an audience consisting primarily of creepy men, and make more money doing it than they would waiting tables or telemarketing.

And she leaves it up to you to decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

So if you get a chance, read Pins by Jessica McHugh. It’s a fun, suspenseful and surprisingly nuanced read. You’ll get a compelling look at the inner working of a strip club. And you won’t even have to stick a 20 in anyone’s g-string.

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