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Live Girls

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Though it’s as uplifting as a holiday in Bosnia or a kaffeeklatsch with Sylvia Plath, this debut novel chronicling a slow-motion nervous breakdown is difficult to put down. The characters — a young woman who sells tickets in a porn theater, her wife-murderer boss, his bumpkin nephew, and an anorexic drag queen — are dysfunctional losers in an unnamed seaport flooded with the backwash of the American dream. Part of the suspense of Live Girls is seeing just how long Beth Nugent can sustain her characters’ unwavering misery: They simply writhe in the barbed wire of her imagination until the book ends — or, more accurately, stops. Nugent’s gently stylized prose and flashes of black humor make their plight sickly fascinating, but even in the service of biting social commentary, her existentialism is way over the top. This is a cultural critique performed with a bludgeon. B