“Down and Out in Bugtussle, The Mad Fat Road to Happiness,” by Stephanie McAfee

Stephanie McAfee

Stephanie McAfee

Reviewed by Amy Susan Wilson

Down and Out in Bugtussle, The Mad Fat Road to Happiness, by Stephanie McAfee, is hilarious. It is not merely a “chick-lit” exploration of female issues—it resonates not only because of its superbly crafted world of women who create a sense of community for themselves, but also because it explores what happens when dreams transform, shift, drift, and morph, giving birth to a new vision of life.

Plus-sized heroine “Graciela” Ace Jones has recently moved back to her hometown of Bugtussle, Mississippi, after leaving her dream life with her ex-fiancé in Florida. Ace had owned her very own art gallery in Florida, and was on her way to the altar.  Suddenly, she realized her “dream life”—and real life—had been right in front of her all along: living in Bugtussle and teaching art at the local public high school. Ace hightails it back to her hometown, and from there, the novel describes her challenges as she transitions and resettles into Bugtussle.

Ace moves into her recently deceased Gramma Jones’s house with her ever loyal canine companion, Buster Loo, the chiweenie. The first obstacle in front of her is obtaining employment. Her replacement at Bugtussle High School, Cameron Becker, an art teacher, will not vacate her position, so Ace must work as a substitute teacher while devising means to run Ms. Becker out of town.

Ace suggests to the high school counselor that Ms. Becker receive a poor teacher evaluation, and much to Ace’s delight, the “hottie” Ms. Becker does receive a dismal evaluation, but not at Ace’s behest.  One cannot help but root for Ace to get her old job back, in spite of her attempt at cruel manipulation.

During a conversation with the counselor, also Ace’s longtime friend, Ace suggests, “Chloe, you could talk to Mr. Byer and very nicely suggest that the current art teacher not be recommended for renewal. … Mr. Byer will do anything you suggest because you’ve been saving his ass this whole entire year.”

Yet, something changes for Ace.  Eventually she decides to extend the olive branch, so to speak, and her competitive spirit transforms into compassion for her rival.

There is absurd, rich humor in both the dialogue and the settings presented in this book.  For example, when Ace’s good friend, Jalena, opens her own diner, Ace volunteers to paint a mural on the diner’s wall, saying, “If you want, I could paint an Ethan Allen in the nude standing beside his big green tractor. …I think that would be a real crowd pleaser.”

Ace describes Jalena as a “fellow fat girl from sunny Florida with a heart as big as her behind,” adding, “[w]hen I met Jalena she had a hoard of online dating accounts and a romantic history packed with Mr. Wrongs.”  Yet, true to nature, Ace follows this harsh description with an act of characteristic compassion: “I brought her up to Bugtussle one weekend. …She met my pal Ethan Allen Harwood who has always had the worst luck with the ladies and, well, everyone pretty much agrees that they’re a match made in frog-giggin’, tractor-drivin’ heaven.”

Ace must endure her best friends’ (Lilly and Chloe’s) attempts to set her up on blind dates that are less than romantic. McAfee’s descriptions of these blind dates might cause you, as they did me, to laugh hard enough choke to death on your Diet Coke. Although Ace wants a break from her dismal, pitiful love life, the blind dates prove therapeutic: Ace realizes bad dates are worse than spending time alone.

McAfee’s portrayals of dates gone terribly wrong will ring true to any woman or man over age thirty who has been subjected to a blind date; Ace will no doubt charm readers as a flesh-and-blood character who is an unapologetic, Mountain Dew swigging, Wal-Mart shopping, Southern gal.  Ace is lovable for making snarky comments to her best friends about “those girls” who wear Mossy Oak clothing despite the fact that she herself will often wear jogging pants that are just as heinous as the criticized apparel.

Also notable are the “dog scenes” in this novel.  In one instance, Ace suggests, half-jokingly, that she and her best friend, Lilly, dress Buster-Loo in a vest—“official looking”—and pass him off as a “service dog” so that Buster Loo can make trips to Wal-Mart with her “Mr. Wishbone” squeaky toy along for the cart ride.

Navigating through the singles scene and attempting to gain her teaching job back, Ace becomes obsessed with the mysterious letters she finds in her grandmother’s attic. Some suspicious notes indicate that her Grandmother had a special “someone” that Ace was never aware of. With Chiweenie Buster Loo constantly at her side, Ace works to identify the secret lover.  As she learns more about her Gramma, she also evolves as a person, becoming more loving, more compassionate, and more likeable.

In the book’s most hilarious scene, Ace attends a rock concert with a fellow substitute teacher, the ever eccentric Stacey Dewberry from Alabama. Before the concert, Ace undergoes an eighties “chick make-over” that is a bona fide hoot.  When I got to this scene, now that I was on notice of McAfee’s sense of humor, I knew to stash my Diet Coke back in the fridge.

Ace is witty, crass, charming, and warm, and she and her world of female friends, romances gone wrong, snarky jabs at the Mossy Oak, and Wal-Mart trips stick with you for some time.  The enduring strength of this book is in its cultivation of a sense of female community and in its hilariousness.  For these alone, McAfee deserves an award.

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