As a rule, authors’ first books are rarely their strongest. Think of Faulkner, Dickens, and Morrison. Think of Jane Austen and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Think of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in his later years, sought out copies of his first book so that he could burn them. But the rules of art are as often excepted as adhered to, and such writers as Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, and Harriet Beecher Stowe serve as admonishments against aphoristic absolutism. So does Jose Skinner, with his first book of fiction, Flight and Other Stories.
Unlike most first-time fiction authors, whose short fiction debuts are the result of apprenticeships in Creative Writing programs, Skinner did not spend his youth earning a Master of Fine Arts. Instead, he built a wealth of experiences that would be the envy of any artist. He was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico of American expatriate parents, but raised in Mexico and New Mexico. His secondary education began in Mexico City, and he graduated with a degree in Horticulture from the University of California at Davis, after which he spent some time in Nicaragua helping the Sandinistas to rebuild after the overthrow of the dictator Somoza. In Nicaragua, Skinner worked as a journalist, but since then he has spent time in Spain, California, Texas, and New Mexico where he took such jobs as a court interpreter, a gardener, a liquor store clerk, and a literary translator.
The marketing behind Flight and other stories emphasizes Skinner’s own background, and it is clear that the author’s experiences in Latin America and the American Southwest serve as the wellspring for his fiction. In an “Author’s Note” accompanying his packet from the University of Nevada Press, Skinner writes that he is “naturally interested in themes of displacement, exile, estrangement, and self-division.” This is an accurate self-assessment, because the stories in his first book are all about people thrust into alien circumstances, then forced to make hard choices.
If Skinner has a storied past, then the manuscript for Flight has a storied pedigree as well. When the novelist Chris Offutt heard Skinner read the title story in a cafe, Offutt asked Skinner if he had any more stories. Skinner said yes, and Offutt encouraged him to enter the Drue Heinz contest at the University of Pittsburgh Press. Skinner’s manuscript became a finalist in the contest, but it did not win. Nevertheless, it caught the attention of one of the judges for the contest, the novelist Douglas Unger, who forwarded Skinner’s manuscript to the University of Nevada Press, where it was eventually published.
The University of Nevada Press is an academic publisher, known more for such books as Bombs in the Backyard: Atomic Testing and American Politics, Building Hoover Dam: an oral history of the great depression, and the literary corpus of Robert Laxalt, the late laureate of Nevada. So a writer looking to publish a bestseller would seem to do well to look elsewhere. But, like much regarding Jose Skinner, the commercial fate of Flight and other stories promises to take a non-traditional path. Already, this paperback original has gone into a second printing, largely the result of being selected by Barnes & Noble for their “Discover Great New Writers” promotion, which prominently places selected books in every Barnes & Noble bookstore in the country. Not bad for a manuscript that started life as an also-ran.
The book’s title story, the one which moved Chris Offutt into advocacy, is darkly-comic — a small-scale picaresque about a woodcutter from rural New Mexico who must take his first plane-ride to visit his imprisoned brother. His journey to the airport in Albuquerque runs him smack into racial and technological conundrums, which wound and baffle, as well as ennoble, him. The story’s compellingly open ending follows Ondaatje’s edict (in Coming Through Slaughter) that “the right ending is an open door you can’t see too far out of. It can mean exactly the opposite of what you are thinking.”
Like Ondaatje’s fiction, Skinner’s stories are riddled with an awareness of the political, cultural, and social milieu in which they are set. In fact, one of Skinner’s greatest strengths is his worldly perspective, which grounds his writing. Because he is an assiduous chronicler of authentic detail, his settings, whether representations of Chile or New Mexico, evoke the chaotic, haphazard nature of reality. They testify that the liveliest imaginings are those located closest to reality.
The strongest story in this collection is “Archangela’s Place,” which has enough incident and drama to fill a novel. In it, an immigrant domestic becomes intimately involved in the strange dynamic of an American nuclear family. It’s a set-up that could spawn a telenovela or soap opera. Yet Skinner avoids cheap theatrics. The story is narrated in a quiet voice whose disarming confers on the conflicts and resolutions a kind of dignity.
Perhaps the most outrageously contrived story in this collection is “Weeds,” in which a recovering addict attempts to cope with his personal demons by creating an urban community garden that soon becomes a kind of battleground between archetypes. Schematic in structure and rife with overt symbolism, this is a story that nonetheless lives on the page, largely via its narrator’s convincing voice. So, although the quality of stories in this book is uneven, none of them are weak. Even more tellingly, it is the longest stories in this collection, like “Archangela’s Place” and “Age of Copper,” that are its strongest, revealing a world-building imagination at work. I feel sure that Skinner’s projected novel will bear out the promise of this, his first book.