Shirts And Skins
In his debut novel "Shirts and Skins," Jeffrey Luscombe writes in a plain-prose style that underscores the tedium and drear of the east side of Hamilton, Ontario, which his protagonist Josh Moore describes as "thirty miles--and about twenty years away from Toronto." Josh isn’t a Horatio Alger character, who emerges from oblivion to take on the world, as much as he is a product of his environment, where people resign themselves to low-wage lives and deaths in the steel mills. But being gay sets Josh apart, and he can only keep it on the low for so long before it ejects him into a much bigger life in that much bigger city "twenty years away."
Right from Jump Street, we learn that six-year-old Josh’s family situation is in steep decline. They move to an even frowsier, fustier, dustier part of town where the ghost of an infamous infanticide named Evelyn Dick hovers over the street like a curse to all who live there. Josh’s father starts tipping the bottle more and makes bad bets at the track. Soon he winds up in the psych ward after attempting suicide. Josh’s God-squadder aunt swoops in from Georgia to get Josh’s father to give up his drinking, long hair and socialist worldview for a new life as a born-again Christian. Josh’s father succumbs to his sister’s entreaties but stops going to church as he develops agoraphobia, which he is convinced can only be healed through the power of prayer. Josh’s mother becomes the sole breadwinner in the family as his father barricades himself in the basement, where he’ll stay with his Bible until he grows old and enters a nursing home.
You might recall the term "shirts and skins" from gym class, where the phys ed teacher divides teams between boys wearing shirts and those not wearing shirts. The "skins" scenario is a nightmare for shy and uncoordinated kids like Josh, whose book smarts and sensitivity have already made him the bullies’ favorite victim. After getting beaten to a bloody pulp in a horrific, middle-school gay-bashing incident, Josh starts conforming to the town’s macho codes and stays under the radar for decades.
Josh grows up to become a boozer, hitting strip joints with his local union buddies, until a grisly metal-stamping accident paraoxically puts Josh on the market for a better-paying corporate job. Eventually he marries a woman named Allison, though his eye was really on Rob, the guy he stole her from. Tragedy later tears asunder Josh’s already moribund marriage, inspiring him to pursue his true inclinations on one of his many out-of-town trips. In the end, Toronto, true love, sobriety and higher learning will loom larger for Josh than Edna Dick’s spirit did over his dead-end childhood community.
Luscombe shows in spades how listlessness can get the better of our lives if we let it. Until late-bloomer Josh finds true love, his sexual experiences are louche; his hair, clothes and musical tastes are tacky; and the reader sees again and again that Josh’s nascent intellectual curiosity isn’t enough to liberate him from a lifelong parochialism. He has to leave town, he has to explore. The early chapters could benefit from more line-editing, dialogues could be much more concise, and the narrative could more fully illustrate both Josh’s metamorphosis and Toronto as a cosmopolitan contrast to Hamilton. All the same, "Shirts and Skins" is nothing but authentic in its pathos, eloquent in its delivery, and well worth the read.
"Shirts and Skins"
by Jeffrey Luscombe
Chelsea Station Editions
Publication date: July 16, 2012