Book Review: Debut novel `Headshot’ gives us head shots of the psyches of teenage girl boxers


Rita Bullwinkel knows a thing or two about the human body and the abuse it can take. In an interview with The Paris Review, the author, who played water polo in college, talked about the beating her body took for a sport few people care about. “My nose and all of my fingers have been broken. One time, when I was 16, I vomited for two days straight because of a full-force kick I took directly to the stomach.”

Bullwinkel brings that intimate knowledge of bodies in competition to her debut novel, “Headshot,” which takes place in Reno, Nevada, over two sweltering days in July as eight teenage girls vie for the Daughters of America Cup at Bob’s Boxing Palace, a faded, dusty gym that is far from palatial.

Andi is haunted by thoughts of a 4-year-old boy who drowned in a swimming pool when she was on duty as a lifeguard. Artemis, whose older sisters excelled at boxing, too, worries about not living up to the family legacy.

Bullwinkel gives us “head shots” of the other girls, too, each with her own weird obsessions and dreams. Andi may be fixated on the child’s corpse but she is also thinking about a boy lifeguard she wants to kiss. One moment Artemis hates Andi, “this sorry zit-ridden girl;” the next, she wants to be friends.

Bullwinkel’s rhythmic, muscular prose matches the visceral, sometimes stomach-churning material — vicious hits to the face and body, “Andi’s nose feeling like cornflakes” after Artemis’s glove lands between her eyeballs.

Stylistically, she takes risks. Though the story unfolds over just the 48 hours of the tournament, the omniscient narrator projects into the future to imagine the girls’ fates. She is clear-eyed, unsentimental. When Artemis is 60, she will not be able to hold a cup of tea because her fingers have been broken so many times. “Her injury… will not be some battle relic, but, rather, a sorry, pathetic disability.”

In 2018, Bullwinkel made a splash in the literary world when she published “Belly Up,” a collection of short stories with grotesque, surreal plot twists. One reviewer described it as full of “squirmy pleasures.” Her new work continues in that vein with dark scenes and characters that can be difficult to read. Yet it also feels important because she gives agency to a group of girls who might not otherwise be seen and shows them to us in the full flush of youth, striving for recognition and glory.

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