Monday, July 04, 2016

Summer's End: Stories by R.D. Skillings

R.D. Skillings

Summer's End: Stories by R.D. Skillings

Review by Doug Holder

R.D. Skillings is a mainstay of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., where he has served as a trustee and chair of its writing committee for decades. He has mentored many young writers and has been prolific in his own writing-- publishing collections of poetry, short stories, and novels. Recently Christopher Busa of the Provincetown Arts Press sent me Skillings' new short story collection “Summer's End” for review. He felt that I might relate to this collection because of my own youthful forays in Boston-- the rooming houses, the cat ladies, the old haunts, etc... that I covered in my poetic memoir of Boston and beyond “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Poseur.”

Skillings' book is an old fashioned one in the best sense. He writes about Boston, Provincetown and the environs before the tendrils of gentrification transformed them to another thing entirely. This was when a dive bar was not a cutting edge concept to lure tourists in to experience the sanitized grit of the days of yore. This book goes back to a time when the red-light district of the Combat Zone in Boston was flush with blinking neon signs, ladies of the evening, strip clubs, and when on a wafting night breeze one could hear the whispers of “ Hey, doll—want some company?” At times Skillings' ear for dialogue impressed me as much as the late, great George Higgins ( "The Friends of Eddie Coyle”) did with his mastery of the vernacular—the linguistic nuances that give the reader a “this is for real” moment. Whether it is the tit for tat of some old men in a barbershop, or a floozy in a seedy bar, the dialogue never seems stilted.

Skillings' characterization are right on the money as well. Skilling is not in the habit of labeling or creating stick figures. He realizes the complexity of the most down and out, and challenged stumble bums. In the “ Girl who saw God,” a group of 70-somethings and a younger barber have for years ritualistically gathered at a barbershop in a small burg to chew the fat. At first the conversation seems casual—but as it progresses the subtext rears its head, and the discussion becomes more about life and death. There is a talk of a young girl who told one of the older gents about a near death experience she had, and her sighting of a divine, all encompassing and welcoming white light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The young barber hears this and is brought to ponder ontological question a midst his banal existence:

“ At a loss, already weary, dazed by the thought of everything vanishing in light, he tries to recall his wife's warm hips and sleepy morning smile, wishes, wishes he too could hang up his white coat, forget his car, walk home the old way through childhood streets beneath the bygone elms, and take her back to bed for a long, long nap.”

In the “Tomb of Hiram Gooms” Skillingtons' ear for dialogue bitch slaps you with its blunt, in your face sensibility. In this story of a gone-to-seed, white trash sort of gal ( Who we later learn has a surprising sensitivity)  she  makes a pitch to a barkeep for a bit of carnal pleasure. She pleads her case:

“I'd like a pole of prick with a red head like a pomegranate right up my bazoo. I happen to know you've got a wanger on you would make a heifer howl. What say we go out back like we used to?'

Me thinks that Skillings might have been influenced by the“ Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters because of his wonderful descriptions of small town characters-- that although not dead—for all practical purposes some of them should be. In the same story, in the window of a hash house, Skillington has his female narrator view a sort of museum of people beaten down by life—like one Wally Wizzling, once a railroad man—who goes into a nightly pantomime of waving his hands at an imaginary oncoming train—fueled by booze and what haunts him.

Some stories have a meandering, unfinished quality about them—but even in those you see Skillings' mastery at work. Highly Recommended.

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