Kellie Wells, Skin, University of Nebraska Press, 2006

Edmund Sandoval

[Review Guidelines]

Ylem, the hypothetical matter that, according to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, was the substance from which the chemical elements were formed, has settled upon the sleepy town of What Cheer, Kansas, in Kellie Wells' novel-in-stories Skin. What Cheer is populated by your regular terrestrial humans: Ivy Engel, the precocious and worldly sixteen-year-old we all wish we were now that we're grown-ups; her friend Duncan, a victim of compression scars that "can tear through your insides and clip the edges off your vital organs like goddamned scissors"; Charlotte McCorkle, a friendly grandmotherly type given to trashing mirrors in her front lawn and then crawling through the aftermath on bare hands and feet; Zero Loomis, a quiet young man who defies gravity and floats around his apartment when alone. Beyond these mundane folk of What Cheer is the child who loses his father in a field to a group of glassy-eyed adolescent aliens housed in a UFO shaped like a brick and as big as a building; the deacon who has split with his faith and given up eating beef and chicken; a mother who recounts recollections of a Vietnam-era childhood and the gently-violent failed soldier of a father who pushes her into a wall and hugs her when she tells him, "Tyranny's wound runs deep," and on and on.
     Beyond the special attributes and oddities of these people is the bigger theme of skin. Skin, our largest organ, malleable and strong, soft and penetrable, is redolent in every chapter, every page of Ms. Wells' narrative. Her characters are often trapped within their skin, and the wish to escape is hard to ignore. Ms. Wells has touched upon skin in a language that is erudite and luscious, poignant and moving:

When I was a child in Montana, I had a friend, Luella Sanford, whose right arm had been badly burned in a grease fire. The landscape of scarred skin on her forearm seemed to me so beautiful as to be ornamental. I loved to run my hand over the drawn and puckered terrain of that skin. The cooling lava of bunched flesh was patterned and perfect, mathematical, mesmerizing as a spinning pinwheel. One night I stayed with the Sandfords and slept with Luella in her bed. I was so excited to be that close to her that my own skin flushed red and began to itch. I felt the stiff ticking of the mattress pressing into my legs. When I thought Luella was asleep, I pushed the quilt back and gently laid my head on her arm. I rubbed my cheek against the blossoms of scar, the thick petals of skin. Luella awoke and began to cry. Deformity's just another shape, I wanted to tell her.

     Ms. Wells' characters wish to escape their skin. They wish to break from it, as though they could experience the rapture of ascendancy while still alive and breathing upon the earth. For the inhabitants of What Cheer believe in angels, and in certain instances they are angels—they are gentle and kind and full of judgment about the world—they want the best for each other and the very worst. For instance, while Mrs. McCorkle is having the bluing washed out of her hair by Zero Loomis at 2001: A Hair Odyssey, her hands and feet conspicuously bandaged in pure white gauze, she tells Zero about a nephew named, incidentally, Gabriel (yes, like the angel):

"Of course when the wings began to sprout, Gabriel's calling was hard to deny. It started at the hips, two sharp, bony structures that pressed their way through his skin and bled like anything. Gabriel was up in arms about this angelically renovated physiognomy and had these little inklings of wings surgically removed. Wasn't easy finding sawbones for that job, I can tell you. But." Mrs. McCorkle sat up. Water ran down her face and slid into the channels of flesh ringing her throat. "They grew back."

     However unbelievable the stories that make this novel are, you come away wanting to believe them. Ms. Wells rightly assumes that we as readers, as people, wish to break free from the constraints of ground, to shed our skin, sprout wings and fly. Within these stories she explores humanity, from the humdrum of a broken septic tank spilling effluvium into a back yard, to the weighty issues of death when a child watches a man executed on television—all this, the ylem that became us is found in these pages, mystical and strange and held together by our skin.
     So, yes, take a moment to read along with Ms. Wells, touch her skin and sprout thy wings, and perhaps if you find your oak tree inhabited by bats that resemble rotten peaches or find that you are an angel, you won't be surprised (much).