How I got to Joyce Carol Oates's Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is a fun story. I was in Chicago for Book Expo 2016, and I went to a bookstore as I am wont to do. I found this in the used section and thought it would make a good read. At checkout, there was no record of the store ever having the book in stock. How peculiar, they said. Someone must have left it behind and it was shelved by accident. I could just take the book. That is how I found myself in possession of JCO’s first YA novel.
Big Mouth is Matt, a high school junior who is semi-popular. One day he is dragged out of class by police officers investigating a threat to shoot up his school. He can’t imagine who on earth would have said such a thing — it’s not in Matt’s nature to be violent. No matter. The long-hanging stench of scandal holds on to him with the tentacle grip that only a scandal can. Ugly Girl is Ursula, a tall basketball player who hides behind her invented persona in order to avoid being hurt by anyone — friends, romantic interests, even her family. However, she know that Matt isn’t guilty. They aren’t friends, but Ursula does what’s right, and that’s sticking up for the wrongly accused. Soon Usula realizes she is Matt’s only remaining friend. Neither of them bargained for this.
I was surprised at how charmed I was by this novel. I have been hesitant lately about the school shooting genre, what with one happening in our world every couple of days. In fact, I put a mass market paperback away for a while because it was just too real to read for fun right now. However, this story was much deeper than a gory, graphic portrayal of a bullied kid getting payback. Matt is the opposite of a bullied kid — he has friends, or at least kids he thinks are friends. He is well-liked and a sweet person. It’s only after he is wrongly accused (we find out who did it toward the end) that he learns this friends are of the fair-weather type. They don’t want to be associated with his scandalous name, and as we know, those who kick you when you are down aren’t really your friends at all.
This pushes Matt into a period of self-discovery where he has to look past all that shimmers and see what he really needs in a friend. Ursula is hesitant to be that person, because her fear of rejection is too deep to open up willingly. It’s only when she literally saves Matt’s life that she can open up to him. It’s a sweet moment, and JCO has captured that youthful terror or wanting a friend but holding on to a deep-seated fear of rejection. I loved watching the friendship of Matt and Ursula grow, and how it blossomed in the middle of such a tumultuous period for them both. I remember those hormones and the put-of-control feeling that comes with being an adolescent, and JCO has written that in so lovingly in this novel. It’s like it was yesterday for her own self.
I’m a JCO fan, and I have been for some time. I am impressed at her foray into young adult literature, and I’m glad I got my hands on this book. It reminded me to dive back into her cannon with gusto.