Break the Skin
Because I got an email from Random House (Crown Publishing) offering to send me some of their new books and I saw a sort of local author on there, Lee Martin, who works at Ohio State University, I said yes to a copy of his novel Break the Skin.
The title reference is ostensibly to tattooing, what one of his two main characters does for a living. She goes by “Miss Baby” and lives in Denton, Texas. The other main character, Laney, works in a Wal-Mart in Mount Gilead, Illinois. They both fall in love with the same guy and this happens, like everything else in the novel, not quite at the same time and without too much real intent to deceive.
Laney has two friends—Delilah and Rose. She is Delilah’s only friend and says she is “the one who got Delilah, and trust me, sometimes she was hard to get. She could be all lovey-dovey one minute—oh, she knew how to flirt—and then hard to the core the next. She’d set her jaw and purse her lips, and little wrinkle lines would flare under her nose. At work she could tell Mr. Mank to fuck off and leave her be and never catch his shit the way the rest of us did. Maybe it was because she kept that pistol in her purse and showed it to him one night.”
Rose, on the other hand, “thought she could make the world to her whim by thinking what she wanted. Her energy would create what was best for her, and if she needed a little help, she had her poppets….Delilah called her ‘Mary Poppets’ but that was just a joke between her and me, and I felt guilty every time I laughed about it on account of I loved Rose, too—loved her because she was a big woman with a big heart, and because she loved so hard and felt so deeply, she always had a long fall to make whenever things didn’t work out to suit her.”
When Rose and Delilah quarrel over a man, Laney and her boyfriend Lester are caught in the middle. Laney is young and seems easily led; she and Lester share jokes and Hershey’s kisses and stickers at work, and then he takes her out for breakfast and to the movies. She says “we never held hands. We never kissed. I told Delilah all that, but she still insisted that Lester was the man who came to me from Rose’s spell.” The joking about bewitching and poppets soon becomes serious.
Lester has come back to Mount Gilead haunted by his actions during the war in Iraq, and when he has one of the periodic spells during which he loses his memory and leaves town, Miss Baby meets him in Denton and he allows her to call him Donnie and pretend that they’re married.
Since the novel begins with Laney’s point of view, I was more sympathetic to her. For a while I read through the sections narrated by Miss Baby just waiting to get back to Laney, to hear her talking about things like why she likes listening to crows: “I think it was their calls and the way they were so urgent that plucked something in my heart and made me think of people like Lester and Delilah and Rose and me, people who had things to say if we could just figure out a way to make the world listen.”
About three-quarters of the way through the novel, though, Miss Baby’s story finally pulled me in. As she says, her family “were experts at breaking the skin, at knowing just where to stick the needle to cause the most pain. In a way, it became the only way we knew we still mattered to one another at all.”
In the end, Laney and Miss Baby end up being the same kind of character—the kind that let other people believe whatever they want to believe and don’t contradict them when they build on false beliefs. The climax of the novel comes when Laney decides that she must
“take responsibility for everything, to admit what I knew to be the truth: There were all these lives going on in people and they didn’t even know it, all these lives festering just beneath the skin. It didn’t take much to call them up to light and air. The prick of a needle here or there, and everything you thought you weren’t could get out and stain you forever, could ripple out to other people—you could even swear you loved them—and hurt them in ways you never could have imagined.”
It’s an interesting character study, this novel, a look underneath some very plain talk to the possibilities of meaning inherent in any exchange between any two people who want to feel less alone–and the widening circles that ripple outwards from those possibilities, distorting as they move farther away from the original source.
Not what I expected, exactly, from a local author; a reminder that it’s smart to take another look at the people around you before you dismiss them as the kind you’ve seen before.