cover image Love and Hot Chicken

Love and Hot Chicken

Mary Liza Hartong. Morrow, $30 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-330479-6

Hartong’s snark-filled debut mixes a laugh-out-loud lampooning of small-town Southern life with a coming-of-age queer romance. It’s earthy, irreverent, and a hint mean-spirited, and the plot, while not quite an afterthought, is a lightly sketched bundle of implausibilities: PJ Spoon, 26, returns home to Pennywhistle, Tenn., to support her newly widowed mother after her father’s sudden death, abandoning her doctoral studies and an out-and-proud social life in the far more liberal Nashville. She distracts herself from grief with a job cooking at a chain eatery, the Chickie Shak, which has only two other employees: a redhead who calls herself Boof and has “a disposition so sunny it calls for SPF,” and an older woman named Linda who “can be a little testy,” PJ muses, “but I reckon most Lindas are. Every now and then she’ll call somebody sweetheart in a way that makes you want to piss yourself and die.” Chemistry instantly sizzles between PJ and Boof, but a shadow looms over their budding romance: mandatory participation in the franchise’s first ever beauty pageant. The absurd competition for the Chickie Shak Hot Chicken Crown exasperates PJ and Boof, animates Linda (who joyfully experiments with rhinestones), and fosters resentments that forestall conversations all three need to have if they’re going to grow beyond their Chickie Shak lives. The emotional beats are somewhat sporadic, but the one-liners are relentless. Hartong’s genuine comedic gift makes PJ’s story well placed to become a beach-read hit. Agent: Deidre Knight, Knight Agency. (Feb.)