Someone hot-pink spraypainted “SLUT” across the cover of Lauren Holmes’s debut short story collection. It fits. Summer’s boldest title deserves its most eye-catching cover.
“ ‘Barbara the Slut’ was always going to be the title of the collection,” Holmes says at Bread Alone Bakery in Rhinebeck, New York. “It was one of the first stories I wrote, and it really shaped the way that I thought about the collection. I was like, Oh, I need to write a bunch of stories that are going to be in my book, ‘Barbara the Slut.’ So there was never any hesitation... but I definitely wondered how it was going to be perceived and interpreted.”
“I’m so grateful for the cover, that vision of it and the idea that it’s a statement on modern sexual politics,” says Holmes, who grew up in the Hudson Valley, and earned a BA from Wellesley and an MFA from Hunter College.
In the titular story, the same shocking pink scrawl lands college-bound senior Barbara in the high school therapist’s office:
“When SLUT got spray-painted in pink letters down the front of my locker at the end of junior year, I had to go to the school therapist to talk about my feelings. I kind of liked the color and I would have been more upset if it had been black or something, but those weren’t the feelings the therapist wanted to talk about. She asked me if I thought I was promiscuous and I said no. She said in that case the other kids were just jealous of me being so smart, and I should try to forget about them. She said she didn’t need to get in touch with my parents because it was just a misunderstanding. I don’t think she was very good at her job. She told me again to try not to think about it. It was easy not to think about girls, but what about boys?” Holmes writes.
A candid, comic, and refreshing collection, Barbara the Slut: And Other People focuses on the au courant ordeals of young adulthood. Like coming out to your irresponsible mother, who’s asked you to smuggle designer panties to Mexico so she can sell them on the beach at a significant markup (“How Am I Supposed To Talk To You?”). Or how to break up with the Swiss guy you accidentally let move into your apartment (“Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall in Love”).
“The themes that ended up in the book came more from all the stories, basically, taking place in my world, that I live in, and that they all come from my brain,” Holmes says. “As a result, they sort of document my interests and obsessions in a way that makes them come together, like when people are good at putting their house together—they just get a bunch of stuff that they like, and it goes together because they like all of it.”
Barbara the Slut’s teens and twentysomethings grapple with who they are, what they want, and where they’re going. Like the law school grad who doesn’t want to be a lawyer in “Desert Hearts”: “My dad called to bother me so I told him I was going to work at a sex toy store and he said he didn’t have time for my jokes, and to call him back when I was ready to get serious about my life,” Holmes writes.
Or the STD clinic receptionist in “Gonorrheaville”: “I was thinking I might want to study public health, but I was also thinking I might want to move to the forest and eat berries and mushrooms and hibernate with the bears in winter,” she writes.
They are realistic characters. They make questionable decisions. They sweat profusely on the subway before blind dates and adopt dogs who eat their tampons out of the trash.
“That was a borrowed detail, of a dog who ate a tampon who threw it up and ate it again—a dog who shall go nameless. It was too good not to use,” Holmes says. “But I always wonder about the lack of [corporeal] things like that, like acne, [in literature]. Did nobody in all of Jane Austen have a pimple?”
In Barbara the Slut, Holmes presents her characters warts and all, and hopes readers will share her affection for them.
“They’re all basically good people, even the ones who behave badly, who fuck up or do stupid shit. Ultimately, they’re not bad people,” she says, “and hopefully they’re entertaining.... \For me, reading is entertainment and books are entertainment. That's not to say that that’s all they are, or they can’t be more, or they aren’t almost always more, but I think all writers hope for their work to be entertaining and have sticking power. To write something that stays with somebody is a high compliment, I think.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.