Ugly Town by Debra Di Blasi

I met Debra Di Blasi about 8 years ago at the &NOW Festival in Buffalo, NY. I bought a slim book containing two novellas and read them in my hotel room that evening. The next day, the author, Di Blasi, presented at the conference. Foolishly, I told her she wrote the best novellas I had ever read (as if I was an expert in novella reading — oh, the hubris!). But she was kind, and we’ve kept in contact since. As the former creator and owner of Jaded Ibis Press, Di Blasi published my work in Dirty : Dirty, and guest judge Doug Rice chose my story to published in Jaded Ibis’s anthology of the best innovative college fiction. She’s now sold the press, but as you can tell, I am biased because I want her work to do well and she’s been kind to me, but I’ll do my best to be fair.

ugly town

Ugly Town is a novel turned movie script with a dose of meta-fiction. Someone asks, “Who is telling this story?” The formatting changes throughout, keeping you on your toes. The plot is essentially a very white man named Scott somehow crosses into Ugly Town, where only the dead live. They can smell him — he stinks of the living — but luckily he falls in with Cindy, a gas station clerk, and Tina, a child with an AR-15. . . Because lurking around is the devil of Ugly Town. He’s a land developer who makes sure urban sprawl never lets up. It’s build, build, build until you can’t recognize anything.

I loved the characters of Ugly Town. The devil of the dead in urban sprawl hell actually scared me. He can smell the living Scott (who is a Very. White. Man). He can hear the dead’s thoughts and words from anywhere. Since everyone is already dead, when he’s mad, the devil tortures his minions. Another favorite is Little Tina with her green beret and automatic rifle. She makes quite an impression, though she’s still scared of the dark. And then there’s the mysterious Debbie Andrews. Who is she, and what is her role in Ugly Town? Much of the story about Scott, Cindy, and Tina is told from a large gas-guzzling white SUV. You never forget who’s dead, because they do random dead-people things:

“Are the crows here also dead?” Scott wonders aloud.

“C-R-O-W,” spells Tina and pops the Alphabits letters into her mouth and says, “I’m eating crow!” and then she reaches through the glass of the side window and snatches a crow out of mid-air and bites its head off.

Cindy says, “Spit that out, Tina.”

Tina mumbles, “Make me!” then opens her mouth wide to show Cindy the crow’s head.

The plot starts out puzzling for a few pages then becomes interesting. It’s almost like watching a horror movie, which is what Di Blasi was going for based on the novel’s description. I was scared, both of Ugly Town and the references to waste and homogeneity that result from urban sprawl. When Cindy and (the very white man) Scott think their only salvation is to find Debbie Andrews in a library — a symbol of the antithesis of urban sprawl — the action ramped up.

Di Blasi has a long and varied career. Her projects go back and forth between narrative-driven, like Drought & Say What You Like, and highly experimental and harder to follow, like The Jiri Chronicles. I’m wondering if somewhere along the way readers complained about the challenging nature of her experimental works, because at the end of Ugly Town, Di Blasi explains what she was going for in certain aspects of her book. This isn’t just a novel about the horrors of waste and excess in urban sprawl, it’s about race. If you miss that, she lets you know. She points out how some readers don’t get her, but the astute ones followed along. I get where Di Blasi is going with her final chapter, though I felt it took away from the rest of the story. By leaning toward the didactic, the narrative becomes less impactful — but perhaps that is her intention.

Though thrown off at the end, I enjoyed Di Blasi’s refreshing imagination as it led me through the suburban hell, introduced me to the dead, and carried me face-to-face with the devil. The formatting is experimental, but in a way that adds and isn’t gimmicky. See examples below, then get yourself a copy of Ugly Town.

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20 comments

  1. This really does sound interesting. I like the sound of the creepy atmosphere, and the fact that she uses a focus on the characters to make a larger point. That, to me, is a lot more effective than preaching is.

  2. This sounds like an interesting, if disturbing, read! I’m not sure about adding a message in at the end, though. I agree that works are usually more impactful if the message is allowed to unfold naturally.

    • Because Debra Di Blasi isn’t a commercial sort of writer, getting loads of money isn’t her goal. I think doing what she wants us more important to get, so this may have been a massage to readers in general who didn’t get that neat little package they wanted that we often get in commercially successful works.

  3. “She points out how some readers don’t get her, but the astute ones followed along.” Haha – I’m sorry but that did make me laugh. In other words “If you don’t get me, it’s because you’re stupid.” I suspect I may be too stupid for this one… 😉

  4. The chapter at the end reminds me of the afterword George Bernard Shaw eventually wrote for later editions of Pygmalion, (quite grumpily) explaining why people who wanted Eliza Doolittle to end up with Henry Higgins were missing the point of the play completely.

    I really enjoy hearing from your blog about all sorts of experimental and innovative writing that I would never normally encounter – thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

    • You’re so welcome! The theater where I was stage manager for Topdog/Underdog just recently put on My Fair Lady. I had never seen the show before, but I remember being quite disappointed that Eliza ended up with Henry. What an abusive garbage relationship. I never even suspected they would end up together, it was so out of left field.

  5. This sounds so weird and so interesting. The different formatting alone has me intrigued. I haven’t read too many novels where the author plays around with the formatting. I never picked up House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, but the way the book was written is super interesting to me. I might still check that one out from the library just to take a closer look.

    • Danielewski is one of the very few authors who have ever had an experimental work become commercially successful, so a lot of people know his name. I’m not sure if David Foster Wallace was considered commercially successful, but many people know him, too.

  6. “She points out how some readers don’t get her, but the astute ones followed along.”

    Hmmmmmm not sure how I feel about this statement. On one hand, not every reader is going to understand what every author is trying to portray, BUT this comes off a little arrogant.

    • I completely agree, Amanda. That said, will someone who isn’t “astute” even pick up this book? I will admit, I know that the content I read sometimes goes over my head. But I always make an effort to understand. As Melanie states above, this statement seems more geared towards readers of “poorly written mass market books”. But are those people going to read Ugly Town? If not for Melanie’s recommendation, I certainly would have passed over it.

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