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Small-Town Girl Grows on Hard Knocks of the Big City

November 26, 1987|JAMES KAUFMANN | Kaufmann is a free-lance writer living in Iowa City, Iowa

American Beauty by C. J. Hribal (Simon & Schuster: $16.95; 269 pages) Everybody wants her. And so Dorie Keillor gives her body to some men, rents it to others; her roommate and waitress friends lust after her too. "I am desired by men and women equally," says 17-year-old Dorie.

Being treated as an object too early and too often leads Dorie into the cold embrace of cynicism and misanthropy, and not surprisingly causes her to keep most everyone at a distance. Her disdain for men, especially, is made plain from the start of "American Beauty," C. J. Hribal's disquieting first novel.

"What's a man want? Mount you like a horse, children, fixing dinners, wash, the old hi-yoo at night without washing hands first. Mama got lucky, at least my father's not a pig." About her dad, the best Dorie can say is "I love him with a special kind of pity."

Dorie wants more out of life than the dull farm town of Augsbury, Wis., could possibly offer, and so she runs away to Milwaukee. There she earns a living first by waitressing, but later supplements that by turning tricks (the specifics of which are kept almost entirely off-stage by Hribal).

As "American Beauty" unfolds, allowing for the cultural differences a century makes, Dorie Keillor seems like nothing quite so much as Theodore Dreiser's Carrie Meeber for the 1980s.

Like "Sister Carrie," Dorie leaves small-town Wisconsin for the big city, benefits from "friendship" with older men, participates in a mock wedding (Dorie to the gay son of a Minneapolis accountant--a 1980s difference), and ultimately becomes a great success in, yes, real estate.

"American Beauty" has its realism too, though it's nothing Dreiser would recognize, but dirt realism, so called. This means that Hribal mentions the occasional old Chevy up on blocks, and tells of rural characters who are eccentric in ways urban sophisticates are sure to find quaint.

Yet "American Beauty" has considerably more to offer than a superficial resemblance to a literary classic. While Dorie repeatedly makes us aware of how much others desire her, of how sexy she is, it becomes clear that she's protesting too much.

In fact, she's filled with self-hatred. Once that's understood, then Dorie's self-absorption becomes less yet another look at narcissism in the young today and more the exploration of how a young personality grows terrified of intimacy. What is most disturbing about Dorie's personality, however it may have been formed, is her crushingly depressed view of human nature. Talking with her grandmother about "nice" men, Dorie says:

"Everybody has horror stories, men damaging women and vice versa. That's why we're human, right, because we can't connect with anybody we might actually like."

Love is not the answer, so Dorie turns to work. Without warning, she starts "putting in dry walls and stripping floors. . . ." This new Dorie, though perhaps more adult and responsible, relates in no way that I can see to the Dorie who came before, and at this point, I lost touch with "American Beauty."

While Hribal makes many interesting if elliptical observations about lack of commitment and intimacy in today's world, the abrupt transformation of Dorie is simply too much to believe.

How could Dorie go from being a coldly cynical teen-ager to becoming an urban rehabber with a Whitmanesque appreciation for sweat, who uses her gains to buy up farm mortgages back in Augsbury? Dorie's version of Farm Aid does not resolve the novel.

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