I first became aware of Kellie Wells' writing just before she was awarded the Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Award from the University of Georgia Press for her story collection, Compression Scars. I made sure to order a copy of it at the time, and consider it one of the best story collections that I've read in the past decade.
Wells has an ability to merge religious confusion and moral ambiguities, and then toss in a biological element seamlessly that strikes me as very interesting. The title story of that collection is actually included within Skin as a single chapter, very early on. And the compression scars of this title are an indication of what to look for in Wells' writing - an affinity for what is going on beneath the skin as she often writes about blue skin, veins, organs deep inside the body, and the flowing of blood.
Skin is set in What Cheer, Kansas, and is part of the University of Nebraska Press' Flyover Fiction Series, celebrating writing of the Midwest. The novel is set up so that each chapter is told from one, or occasionally two, of seven characters' perspectives. While setting her novel in what one might assume would be a pretty plain location, Wells has given her readers some interesting characters - Duncan, a boy with compression scars across his body, just waiting for the moment they decide to expand and end his life; evangelist Ansel Dorsett, a deacon suffering what appears to be a mid-life crisis; Charlotte McCorkle, who believes she's killed her husband, though he's across town in a nursing home; and then there's Ruby Tuesday Loomis, the child who dreams of fruit growing from her body.
Between this group, Wells conjurs up a story that is a bit magical, a bit fantastical, and at times possibly more surreal than some readers will enjoy - but she does so with a lyricism and vocabulary that is a joy to bounce through. While allowing things to perhaps extend a little too far mysteriously, she reigns the story back in with her title's motif of Skin being both what that which keeps us whole, as well as that which makes us vulnerable.
She is a writer willing to take some chances - both in her story, and in her language - a trait I believe deserves a little attention.
After the jump is a small excerpt from Skin - please come back the week of July 31 - August 4 when we'll be discussing Kellie's novel.
"I don't know , Ive. Guess it's not topping the disease-of-the-week research priority list." Duncan clutched his arms. "They just don't know shit about it, fucking doctors. They're not even willing to commit themselves to this diagnosis. You could hear their malpractice-fearing knees knocking together every time they whispered the word 'morphea' to one another." Duncan began to rock slowly.
I twisted the spirals of hari that hung over his forehead. "Why didn't you tell me about this, about these scars?"
"Because. I didn't really know anything until today."
I felt my stomach start to knot in a way only a Boy Scout could appreciate, hundreds of tiny hands being wrung, pressing against the walls, twisting my insides into lariat loops and granny knots. "So is it for sure ..."
"Time to feed the worms? Should I prepare for the big dirt nap?"
"They don't know. You could fill a thimble with what those bastards know about it. They said it might stop spreading and maybe it will never go inside. They said it could take a few months, a few years, few decades, maybe never happen, maybe happen tomorrow. real conclusive stuff." Duncan looked straight into my eyes and softened his voice to a whisper. "I'm afraid to move," he said. "It's like I have this big rip in my pants or something which should just be embarrassing, right? But if I move, I could die." He kept looking and looking at me, and I felt like he could see my thoughts, could see me thinking, If you die Duncan Nicholson, I'll, I'll puncture an artery and sit in one place and wait until I can come too. Those bottomless eyes. I steadied myself against the bed. I concentrated on the feel of chenille against my palm.
Duncan reached out and pressed his hand against my left breast, the larger one. "I don't want to die a virgin," he said.
I always thought this would be a meaningful moment, that I'd feel velvety needles prickle against my skin. But it wan't like that at all. It wasn't like anything. I couldn't feel it. If I hadn't seen his hand on my breast, I would never have known it was there. My breast felt Novacained, heavy, but it definitely did not tingle, not a single goose bump and I bump easy. I wanted to say, "Yes, Duncan. I love you, Duncan, er, take me," or whatever it is you say between panting breaths in moments such as these, moments that until this one I had only experienced vicariously through the lives of Chelsea Starling, long-suffering and secretly passionate nurse, and Vanessa Vandehorn, sexy rich girl bored with polo players and her MBA studies. But I couldn't. I coudln't even say something stupid like, "Could I please have a pretzel first?" if I'd wanted. My brain and mouth were momentarily disconnected. All I could do was stand up with my numb breast and paralyzed lips and walk out.
Things can get so strange so fast.