The Tomb­stone Race: Stories

Stories by José Skin­ner, Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press, 191 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - by José Skin­ner

So you’re nine­teen, your name is Eme­te­rio Be­navídez and, feel­ing less than proud of the dis­tance be­tween you and your cul­tural roots, you find your­self tak­ing an in­tro­duc­tory fresh­man Span­ish class at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico in Al­bu­querque. But on the first day of winter term, a charis­matic trans­fer from New Jer­sey wrecks your world by say­ing this to you, “Be­navídez, from Ben-David, son of David. Eme­te­rio from emet, He­brew for ‘truth.’ ” A mo­ment later, he says the words you never ex­pected to hear: “You’re a Jew, too . ... A crypto-Jew, a se­cret Jew, a con­verso.”

New Jer­sey in­fu­ri­ates you even as he in­trigues you. Some­thing about him snaps you out of your English­s­peak­ing-Chi­cano cul­tural funk. You find your­self re­vi­tal­ized as some­one whose roots are so an­cient and buried they re­main a mys­tery even to you. Be­fore you know it, New Jer­sey has in­vited him­self to your fam­ily’s home, where he inspects the en­try­way for a tell­tale mezuzah, ri­fles through clos­ets in search of sep­a­rated linens and wools, and turns on his “bro” voice to ask, “Do you have any, like, to­tally empty rooms in your house?” Your face red­dens as you think of the hid­den room in the base­ment where you furtively plea­sure your­self. But New Jer­sey has a one-track mind. Your se­cret source of shame, he be­lieves, is ac­tu­ally a hid­den prayer room: “Typ­i­cally crypto — the rea­son why’s been lost, but the tra­di­tion of build­ing them goes on.”

Out­side of re­li­gion, New Jer­sey is hash­tag crass. New Jer­sey hits on your teenage sis­ter. New Jer­sey in­fu­ri­ates your par­ents with his no-fil­ter ques­tions about their an­ces­try. But you are smit­ten with his sprez­zatura. Against the wishes of your fam­ily, you and New Jer­sey go for hikes in moun­tains, walks around the city. You’re not par­tic­u­larly at­tracted to men, but brash New Jer­sey has tapped the phone lines into your un­con­scious. Like all first loves, he has for­ever al­tered your un­der­stand­ing of your­self.

For the record, not all of the 14 stories in José Skin­ner’s new short­story col­lec­tion are as strong as “Crypto,” but they are all ut­terly cap­ti­vated with young men and women in Santa Fe, Chi­mayó, Al­bu­querque, Clo­vis, and Taos — es­sen­tially, North­ern and North­east­ern New Mex­ico. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Mex­ico and New Mex­ico, Skin­ner is fa­mil­iar with many Latino cul­tures and fam­i­lies. This is his sec­ond short-story col­lec­tion, a genre with which he is very fa­mil­iar, hav­ing co-founded and di­rected the MFA pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Texas-Pan Amer­i­can in South Texas.

In his new crop of tales, nearly all the teens and young adults are strug­gling to find a place for them­selves be­tween their fam­ily’s deep roots in the land and a fleet­ing fu­ture whose prospects rest largely on their abil­ity to hus­tle them­selves or their friends and lovers. Crime, drugs, and frac­tured fam­i­lies fig­ure heav­ily. In “My Dealer, In Memoriam,” two young men — one a stum­bling heroin junkie, the other, a fast-twitch­ing meth ad­dict — con­verge on the home of their dealer, who has just died. Are they pil­fer­ing a dead man’s stash or pre­vent­ing the dealer’s fam­ily from adding shame to their suf­fer­ing? As they roam about the house look­ing for glassines, they con­sole an an­gry pit bull, com­i­cally be­lit­tle one an­other for their night-and-day choice of hard drugs, and try to re­con­struct how all three of them went off the rails into ad­dic­tion so quickly and thor­oughly.

Skin­ner al­lows his char­ac­ters to speak in a language that is evoca­tive, un­sen­ti­men­tal, and em­pir­i­cal. “When you get ad­dicted, your body for­gets how to pro­duce its own nat­u­ral en­dor­phins, and when your pow­ders wear off, it stands churl­ishly aside like a cheated-on wife and says, ‘You feel bad? Go to your lover,’ know­ing that your lover no longer thrills you like at the be­gin­ning of the af­fair but is now nec­es­sary to pal­li­ate the pain of sep­a­ra­tion of you from your body.” Not all stories are as com­pelling. “Clean” fol­lows a young man as he bor­rows money from a loan shark to fi­nance his girl­friend’s anti-acne pro­ce­dures. She bails to Cal­i­for­nia with­out even a text, leav­ing her boyfriend to have his body beat to a pulp as pay­ment. It’s a grim story that does lit­tle to re­veal the two char­ac­ters’ mo­ti­va­tions for their al­ter­nately heinous and self­less acts.

As a writer, Skin­ner seems to spe­cial­ize in con­jur­ing the mind-set of trou­bled youths whose reck­less im­pul­sive­ness masks and pro­cesses per­sonal an­guish. In press re­leases, Skin­ner says many of the stories are in­formed by his pre­vi­ous job work­ing as a Span­ish-English trans­la­tor in sev­eral New Mex­ico courts. But in this col­lec­tion’s best pieces, there is a deep in­ti­macy on dis­play — the war­bled pat­terns of char­ac­ters’ thoughts and language tics, the end­less de­tails of their fam­ily con­flicts — that is hard-wrought from a life­time of care­ful ob­ser­va­tion. — Casey Sanchez

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