I recently met a watercolorist who had returned to New England after two decades in the southwest. Despite the region’s raw beauty—its burnt umber landscape—the artist could no longer cope with the absence of green, the color of moisture, in his life. In fiction, the arid landscape invites depiction of equally arid lives, dried out, vacant, and depressed, and in his latest book, The Tombstone Race: Stories, José Skinner answers that invitation with finesse and poignancy.
The fourteen stories in the collection, all set in New Mexico, peer under society’s stones to examine the lives of some of its most invisible members. With convincing detail, Skinner introduces us to drug addicts and their dealers, an ex-con, closeted gay teens desperate for acceptance, and previously contributing members of society—a judge and a sheriff—who have fallen into shame. Curiously, the other character types who frequently appear are part of a university community: undergraduates, professors, and PhD candidates, all trying to elevate their position in life from early days in poor Latino communities. In their scramble, they keep sliding back into old roles as if losing traction on a climb out of an arroyo. The stories are often grim and by my assessment only one ends with much hope for the future—the best Skinner will usually give us is a character who runs away or surrenders to destiny. Still, the characters’ emotional complexity and Skinner’s keen descriptions drive home his bleak message that some hardships are inescapable.
In the first story, “The Edge,” a teenaged boy is wrongly accused of killing his “homie” by pushing him over the edge of a gorge during a lightning storm. The description of the gorge aptly captures the hopeless milieu of the collection:
At the Edge, the flat sagebrush plain cracked and fell away to seven hundred feet of rough black basalt. The plain was like a sun-faded pool table that had split in two, and they raced their cars and trucks over it and slammed on their brakes at the last minute. Midway down the gorge hung the rusted hulk of a fifties pickup. Cans and broken beer bottles glinted on the rocks. At the bottom coiled the brown river.
Osvaldo’s homies and his own parents prove as unforgiving as the gorge itself: the friends telling the police that they had seen Osvaldo sprout horns and transform into a demon that night, his family recalling a childhood nickname, “mi diablito.” Eventually, even Osvaldo believes himself cursed: “He could not bring his face to the witness stand…to have [the jury] see the evil yellow in those scratched eyes and the even, satanic red glow beneath his skin.” In this story, as in several others, characters born disadvantaged will stay that way and their best option may be to run away.
Even characters who seem to have scratched their way clear of dangerous early years are only a moment from regressing. Take Danny Sanchez in “Backing Up,” a graduate student at the University of New Mexico studying Latino gang violence. When the gang members he has been studying steal his computer, which holds the only copy of his dissertation, Danny could choose to begin his work again or to move in with his parents, who have themselves escaped the barrio for the suburbs. Instead, he offers himself to the gang. He speculates that he was careless with backing up his research because subconsciously a return to the barrio was what he most wanted. As the gangbangers initiate Danny with a sound beating, “he tasted blood in his mouth, warm and salty and good.”
The final story, “The Sand Car,” gives a welcome reprieve from pessimism. A “crabby old lady painter” gets into a battle of wills with Rudy, a drug-addicted twenty-something. Both lay claim to an abandoned car slowly disintegrating in the arroyo behind the woman’s house: he because the car belonged to his uncle, she because the arroyo is on her land. In the end, the wealthy artist abandons her claim, recognizing that her ownership is the result of an unjust land grab generations before. Skinner ends his book in a moment of small justice: when Rudy retrieves the rusted-out car:
[S]he heard Rudy’s laughter… It was a clear and boyish laughter, unlike the drugged slowness of his speaking voice… Rudy gouged and wounded the ground horribly, but the next storm would smooth it over and it would look then like nothing had happened…. [She] could imagine the narcotics evaporating from his body and into the clear sky…. The old chassis hissed as it slid out, a hiss like a fistful of sand thrown across dry leaves.
The Tombstone Race doesn’t coddle us, forcing us to see these painful lives in all their ugliness and challenging us to still find compassion for the criminal, the drug-addicted, the confused, and the lost. These are New Mexico stories, but they belong to all of those who suffer in the hidden world of deprivation and desperation that much of America would rather not see. There is beauty in Skinner’s world, but it is not the easy beauty of green summer days along a blue river, but the honesty of looking a desperate person in the eye and finding humanity there.
About the Reviewer
Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s stories have appeared in Salamander, Massachusetts Review, Greensboro Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. She has been awarded artist residencies by the Ucross Foundation, the Jentel Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She is both Book Review Editor and Associate Fiction Editor for Colorado Review, where she frequently contributes her own reviews. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts.