Skels takes us through the rough and tumble world of New York City paramedics in the late seventies. The reader receives a crash orientation in the form of Orlie Breton, a poet in search of experience and a way to keep herself fed and drunk. Throughout the book, we see some of the forces that lead to living, saving lives, and most importantly creating artistic work.
The book reminds us that to create is to stand in the shadows of those who already have created. But these are not simple shades that pass over the would-be creator, these shadows change the way he sees, can see. These shadows can dominate, for better or worse, works of art, forcing creators uncomfortable with influence to hide it.
Maggie Dubris’ Skels makes no attempts to avoid the appearance of influence. In fact, it celebrates the arrival of 19th century poets and writers, who show up as anachronisms in 1970’s New York City. To this end, the first and seemingly central reference is Arthur Rimbaud, whom the heroine, Orlie Breton, claims to follow both artistically as well as philosophically. This reference is a little painful and facile. Not because it is poorly written, but that the symbol of Rimbaud is unimaginatively used to represent youthful experience and experimentation. Nothing new is given to the relationship between young poets and Rimbaud. The fact that Rimbaud is reduced to a symbol does not allow for his importance to fully manifest, or Orlie to experience what he could mean since this reduction runs counter to her intent. A symbol must pre-exist, must linger outside of the moment, outside of experience. Luckily, this merely lackluster lack of innovation is the most unfortunate aspect of an ultimately enjoyable novel.
Dubris quickly redeems her book by her subtle and exquisite handling of the incarnations of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. She creates and balances their anachronisms and her adaptations of their biographies quite aptly, allowing them to settle in the modern era, successfully weaving their presence into her story. She engages them not only as writers but as living beings whose lives are so deeply ingrained in the American psyche. She excels at giving them lives as vivid as any other character in Skels.
The title itself reveals Dubris’s fascination with the past revived in ways integrated in everyday life. The word skels originated in the Middle Ages. She invigorates the etymology, which she explores, allowing it to breathe a life into the world of indigents and bums.
Sometimes, the narrative starts to interfere with the intriguing and grotesque environments of literary play and urban vignettes — but never in such a way that it explains away the suffering and brutal experiences in the book. Fortunes turn over and over, allies in workplace power struggles suddenly become powerful and adversaries fold, only for the next chapter to have yet another reversal of fate. The book’s entire atmosphere is one of disaster, almost a time of war without war, each emergency doing nothing more than punctuating the constant state of emergency.
Still, the order of the narrative can detract from the brilliance of the chaos and unmotivated action. Thankfully, the main narrative is dainty and self-contained, not intruded on by the character’s paramedic career, a roommate’s band’s struggles, or a boyfriend’s drug-induced worlds.
Most of the interaction between the social spheres seems only to manifest in concurrent absences and only in rare joint appearances of characters toward the end. The movement towards Orlie’s involvement with others is lessened by distinct and frequent desolation fueled by alcohol, drugs, and the latent misogyny of the other paramedics.
The main narrative appropriately seems to riff on one of the most influential 19th century novels, Moby Dick. The famous pairing, Captain Ahab and the white whale, are recast as the obsessed Officer Morgan and an albino skel. Morgan’s obsession is inexplicably rooted in punishing all those who witnessed his partner’s death. This narrative is low relief, skillfully etched between the flashier and supremely engaging incidents and occurrences in Orlie’s life. Sometimes these incidents border on the too fantastic like Orlie’s boyfriend’s public art installation that projects three-dimensional holograms into the street. But these extreme events are kept in check by the highly charged and energetic environment existing in this world of theatrics that emerge from all corners, whether from Weenie the drag queen or John-Paul Saint-Brick the homeless man who fakes seizures.
Skels succeeds in not only speaking through literature, but about literature in a unique and vibrant manner.