“Less Pom-Pom, More Circumstance”: William Henderson Reviews Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Cheerleading and friendship, in sixteen-year-old Addy Hanlon’s world—brilliantly created by Edgar Award-winning Megan Abbott in the just-out Dare Me—vie for Most Competitive Sport in the weeks leading up to the big game, where a scout may just help the varsity cheerleading squad get a shot at regionals.

What you’ve heard about cheerleaders, and what you’ve seen in movies and on television about cheerleaders, is a stretched-out truth, says Addy.

We don’t wear our uniforms all the time, and we don’t mind flaunting our tight bodies. We don’t mind our short skirts and our after-school practices and even running stadium stairs.

We flirt to get out of class, and we flirt to get what we want from men who should know better. We don’t mind the all-consuming effort to not consume, to shrink until cheer and cheerleading is all that is left and who we are.

And we don’t mind falling, because someone, always, is there to catch us

Until that someone isn’t there, and the carefully stacked pyramid of sex, lies, and betrayal collapses.

Those pyramids, so pretty from the outside, but so violent on the inside. Turbulent, much like high school, those heady days when you don’t need wings to fly; you just need to want it enough. Wings, where before you had arms. Changes, seismic at times, between period-ending bells and Friday night football games.

Loyalties shift, when Addy’s best friend and squad captain Beth pits herself against Colette French, the squad’s new cheerleading coach, who has steered one squad to victory and whose arrival coincides with a not-talked-about-but-there-under-the-surface rift between Addy and Beth.

So there they are: Bitter Beth and Cagey Colette and a squad of girls pleased by the comeuppance Beth gets, even though Addy, better than anyone, knows that the only thing worse than a happy Beth is a jilted Beth, who won’t stop until she gets who she wants and what she wants, regardless of consequences.

From the beginning, we know someone is dead. And someone is scared. And someone doesn’t want to be alone. And Addy, tangled, as she is, in a mystery she is ill-equipped to solve. Brought along on illicit dates shared by Colette and Sergeant Will, who spends his days at the high school recruiting boys who want to be all they can be. Suspended between who she is, who she doesn’t know she wants to be, and whom she has to be to keep Beth and her schemes at bay.

Each of the girls on the squad—so easy to blend into one multi-headed hair-sprayed, bedazzled, and sequined hydra, had Abbott gone that route—gets a moment, sometimes more, in the spotlight, which is as good as it gets when you’re the girls at the bottom of the pyramid, counting yourself lucky to even be there.

You think you know what a cheerleader is. But you don’t. More fight club than Fight Club, these girls think they’ll be besties forever, but before the year is out, and that all-important routine during a high school football game ends, the girls will learn that cheerleading, and life, is less pom-pom and more circumstance. And no one survives, standing on the sidelines.

Dare Me, by Megan Abbott. New York, New York: Reagan Arthur Books, 2012. 304 pages. $24.99, hardcover.

William Henderson is never far from his phone, where he is often tweeting (@Avesdad) or blogging (hendersonhouseofcards.com). He is a frequent contributor to Thought Catalog, and has been published in The Rumpus, Mental Shoes, Revolution House, Specter, and Used Furniture Review, among others. He writes a bimonthly column for Hippocampus Magazine, is a regular contributor to Peripheral Surveys, and published his first chapbook, Edgeways, through NAP, in 2011.

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