The narrator of Michael Blouin’s new novel, Skin House (Anvil Press), is never named despite hogging most of the ink in the book and doing outrageous stuff on every page. This narrator is not like Clint “Man-With-No-Name” Eastwood we saw years ago in the spaghetti westerns. Eastwood was never chatty. Blouin’s nameless narrator never stops blabbing. Both, however, are charming outlaws.
For the purposes of this review, let’s call the nameless narrator Mike. Michael Blouin, the much-published pride of Kemptville, has his name on the book as the author even though the nameless narrator tells us at the end of Skin House that maybe he and not Blouin actually wrote this screamingly hilarious, politically incorrect and occasionally touching black comedy.
One begins to wonder whether Mike and Michael just might be the same guy and which one wrote this little paragraph on Page 257: “Apparently it’s easier to get thrown off of a VIA train in the middle of nowhere for ‘public sexual misconduct’ than you might think.”
Chances are we’ve all asked ourselves that. Well, maybe not all of us. But certainly anybody who has ever read any of Blouin’s poetry or prose wouldn’t be surprised when such a dilemma arises. You see, Blouin is a disciple of the late German-American writer Charles Bukowski, the man Time once branded the “laureate of American low-life.”
This all to say that Blouin, a retired high school teacher, does not write ordinary books. He never bores, even when things get a little muddled. Sometimes the books lack what most readers have come to understand as a plot. Sometimes what you thought was prose wins a poetry award. Every book gets nominated for some kind of award; not the Giller Prize, but ones Margaret Atwood’s books automatically leapfrog. The list includes Wore Down Trust, Chase and Haven and I Don’t Know How to Behave. These are books from small publishers. Generally they earn rave reviews. They all stretch the boundaries of literature.
Skin House tells the story of our man Mike. He and his pal Gerry are in their late 20s. Both work in a small town store. Gerry is a butcher. Mike stocks shelves.
Initially they both appear to be losers. But we begin to realize that Mike is really clever, certainly far too smart to be stocking grocery shelves. So, why is he stocking shelves? All is explained eventually. We realize, by book’s end, we probably have judged Mike far too harshly. He’s not a loser; he is a tragedy. But not a hopeless tragedy.
Mike is in rough shape when he meet him. His wife, in a grand exit, tried to burn down his house. His young son has died. His aging father Otis is cantankerous, forgetful and dying to leave his Ottawa seniors residence for a good smoked meat platter at Schwartz’s in Montreal.
Mike and Gerry decide one night to rob the store where they work. They are joined by a clueless guy called Socks because Socks has a car. He also does a weird thing with condoms. They get the money all right, but otherwise the robbery ends very badly.
Meanwhile Mike gets a girlfriend. Lisa is a nurse or, as she says, an “almost nurse,” in Otis’s seniors residence. She bandages Mike when he accidentally cuts an appendage with the sharp edge of a measuring tape. (He always wanted to know how long it was.) Despite the blood, Lisa likes what she sees. Romance blossoms. There’s nothing shy about Lisa.
Women are not brain surgeons in Skin House. But neither are the men. Mike is not exactly a 21st century feminist. Perhaps he and Gerry have spent too many nights getting drunk at their favourite bar to notice that women now have the vote.
Maybe Mike is not as much of a throwback as he seems some times. He writes at one point: “A slut is just someone who sleeps with someone you don’t want them to.” Hmm. Maybe there is a way to say that in a feminist way. You could have a debate about the issue in your next Philosophy 101 class.
And Mike is a philosopher. “In real life,” he says, “it can seem hard to tell who the bad people are but really it is so easy – they’re the ones who aren’t like you.”
Mike has a million sayings like that. They are scattered throughout Skin House. You won’t want them to end. But they do. Maybe Mike’s publisher simply ran out of paper and had to end the book or, maybe the author, whoever he is, figured the nameless narrator had done enough craziness and was ready to settle down.
However, don’t despair. Mike or Michael has a new book coming soon called I Am Billy the Kid. In that book, the infamous gunfighter fakes his own death and heads to Canada. Watch for it. Don’t expect it to be your average cowboy novel.