The 13-year-old narrator of Hick is headed down the wrong path in life, but it’s not one she has chosen. Luli McMullen’s short life has been filled with disappointment and destruction, leaving little time to enjoy her childhood. Andrea Portes’s debut novel, through her teenage protagonist, explores themes of abandonment, abuse, and poverty. Her approach is so subtle and non-preachy that Hick‘s cinematic equivalent would be more indie drama than after-school special.
The novel opens with a typical night for Luli: a bar fight between her parents escalates into near-violence, and Luli is haphazardly shuffled between the two. She eventually has no other choice than to hitch a ride home with the bartender, who is twice her age and ends up sticking his tongue down her throat. And Luli’s scene is set. Her home life, we soon learn, proves just as tumultuous, exacerbated by her bleak reality of growing up poor in rural Nebraska. Through Luli’s eyes, Portes expertly captures the loneliness of poverty and the harsh monotony of being a child with no one to take care of you.
After a particularly bad episode involving her drunken father and estranged mother, Luli opts out, She leaves Nebraska to begin anew in Vegas, a place that appears filled with infinite possibility and opportunity: the exact opposite of her current situation. Luli, not your average teenager, ably scrutinizes the world around her. Instead of feeling ashamed about her poor lot in life, she owns it, takes responsibility for it, and sets about making things at least somewhat right. Hers is the journey of lost teenager, but it’s far from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Luli’s journey begins as a series of rides. Her street smarts come in handy immediately when goggle-eyed cowboy Eddie picks her up. He’s not a good guy, but tough Luli takes care of herself—something she’s been doing her whole life. Her next ride comes from Glenda, a Patsy Cline fan with smeared red lips and a cocaine habit. Luli immediately finds herself entranced by Glenda’s straight-shooting personality and seemingly glamorous life on the road. A surreal quality emerges when Luli discovers that Glenda knows Eddie. From here, Luli becomes inextricably linked to this particular group of societal outcasts.
Throughout her experiences with Glenda, including a botched robbery job, it’s easy to forget Luli is just 13. She’s the antithesis of the modern American teenager; she has grit. Her story is especially interesting as it is based on the real-life experiences of Hick‘s author, Portes. Though Portes’s home life was nothing like Luli’s, she grew up in rural Nebraska, until suburban sprawl wrecked her country life. This upset had a profound impact on her worldview, and Hick combines a lost sense of place with some of Portes’s own bizarre life experiences. Portes has noted an attraction to trouble, to throwing herself in situations that kept her close to the strange and dysfunctional. This kind of first-person experience undeniably shows in her characterization. Eccentric and wild, her characters are larger than life, but they never become unreal.
At times, Hick proves truly disturbing, and one wonders if Luli will ever experiences the better side of humanity. Luli’s biggest battle comes when she and Glenda arrive in Wyoming and find themselves confronted by Eddie. There’s no turning back for Luli. Her plunge into a new life has wrought unexpected consequences, and her strength is tested. Portes succeeds here by removing the melodrama from such a downbeat story and presenting her torn world as utterly real. She makes Luli’s pain real, too. Luli’s endurance, consequently, can only inspire.