First-time author Colleen Curran will read from her new book, Whores on the Hill, tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Barbara's Bookstore, 1100 Lake St.
The three 15-year-old girls in Curran's novel are Thisbe, Juli and Astrid, all students at Sacred Heart Catholic School, the only remaining all-girls' school left in Milwaukee in the late 1980s. The school is located on a hill, and the girls have proudly proclaimed themselves the "Whores on the Hill." They aim to drink every drink, take every drug, smoke every cigarette and sleep with every boy they want.
Thisbe is our narrator. She just transferred to Sacred Heart after her parents' divorce, and hasn't talked for six months and 17 days, since a football player at her old high school crudely propositioned her and she turned him down. When his friends started stuffing her locker with rotting food and hissing sexual insults after her in the hall, she just clammed up. Juli and Astrid claim her as one of their own on her first day at Sacred Heart.
The three friends hang out together every day after school and party together every night. Although they somehow manage to make the honor roll, their main events are drinking parties, casual sex and skipping school.
Mute and angry when she first arrives, Thisbe soon finds a fierce pride in her new-found fame as a Whore on the Hill. Beautiful Astrid, the ringleader of the trio, hates her lecherous, grease-monkey stepfather and spends as little time at home as possible. Juli's parents are splitting up, and she's usually alone in her mansion on the lake, with her friends and a variety of prescription drugs her psychiatrist father gives her. She tries to kill herself twice during the course of the book, but it's not Juli who ends up dead.
Are Astrid, Juli and Thisbe miserable? Maybe, but they don't talk about it. The facts of their lives are the unspoken undercurrent of their daily search for kicks. They're struggling toward ecstasy. "We flew at the night, blind as bats and feral, birds of prey."
I won't give away the end of the three girls' whirlwind tour of drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll, but it involves arson, a bell tower, and a wonderful revelation.
Curran's writing is sensually rich, fevered and direct, with chapters stylishly short and titled with catchy headlines. Although its language is occasionally clumsy and self-conscious, Whores on the Hill is a page-turner that reads with the urgency of the search for a party on a hot summer night. Excited and hurried, we race from chapter to chapter with Thisbe, Juli and Astrid, certain that the next stop will bring the fireworks we can smell in the air.
Whores on the Hill glorifies the high school slut like American literature and movies have long celebrated the male juvenile delinquent. They answer to no one and make their own rules. The only law they respect is the law of Saturday night. "We're the new breed of the new girl," declares Astrid. "We stand alone and take no prisoners." Instead of asserting their power through violence, they assert it through sex. Too bad that, instead of riding off into the sunset, they end up at Planned Parenthood.
But this is not a morality tale. Curran refuses to judge the Whores, no matter how extreme their behavior. She admires the ferocity of her characters' yearning, and she strives to elevate their recklessness to a spiritual state. Every chapter ends with one or two sentences in which she changes tone and tries to spin the breakneck action into poetry. "How did we live with ourselves? How do you live with yourself? With remorse, with grit and shame and a broken, nameless joy."
The novel's emotional content, however, remains separate from its story, floating on the surface of the plot like bits of poetry pasted into the white spaces of a bestseller. With this novel, Curran has made a propitious beginning. One looks for subsequent novels to achieve more unity and depth.
At one point in the book, Astrid tells her friends that, if she were granted one wish, she would fly. The reader finishes Whores on the Hill with the exquisite frustration of having almost?#34;but not quite?#34;been borne aloft by an incredible tale.