The Tombstone Race: Stories by José Skinner, University of New Mexico Press, 191 pages
So you’re nineteen, your name is Emeterio Benavídez and, feeling less than proud of the distance between you and your cultural roots, you find yourself taking an introductory freshman Spanish class at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. But on the first day of winter term, a charismatic transfer from New Jersey wrecks your world by saying this to you, “Benavídez, from Ben-David, son of David. Emeterio from emet, Hebrew for ‘truth.’ ” A moment later, he says the words you never expected to hear: “You’re a Jew, too. ... A crypto-Jew, a secret Jew, a converso.”
New Jersey infuriates you even as he intrigues you. Something about him snaps you out of your English-speaking-Chicano cultural funk. You find yourself revitalized as someone whose roots are so ancient and buried they remain a mystery even to you. Before you know it, New Jersey has invited himself to your family’s home, where he inspects the entryway for a telltale mezuzah, rifles through closets in search of separated linens and wools, and turns on his “bro” voice to ask, “Do you have any, like, totally empty rooms in your house?” Your face reddens as you think of the hidden room in the basement where you furtively pleasure yourself. But New Jersey has a one-track mind. Your secret source of shame, he believes, is actually a hidden prayer room: “Typically crypto — the reason why’s been lost, but the tradition of building them goes on.”
Outside of religion, New Jersey is hashtag crass. New Jersey hits on your teenage sister. New Jersey infuriates your parents with his no-filter questions about their ancestry. But you are smitten with his sprezzatura. Against the wishes of your family, you and New Jersey go for hikes in mountains, walks around the city. You’re not particularly attracted to men, but brash New Jersey has tapped the phone lines into your unconscious. Like all first loves, he has forever altered your understanding of yourself.
For the record, not all of the 14 stories in José Skinner’s new short-story collection are as strong as “Crypto,” but they are all utterly captivated with young men and women in Santa Fe, Chimayó, Albuquerque, Clovis, and Taos — essentially, Northern and Northeastern New Mexico. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Mexico and New Mexico, Skinner is familiar with many Latino cultures and families. This is his second short-story collection, a genre with which he is very familiar, having co-founded and directed the MFA program at the University of Texas-Pan American in South Texas.
In his new crop of tales, nearly all the teens and young adults are struggling to find a place for themselves between their family’s deep roots in the land and a fleeting future whose prospects rest largely on their ability to hustle themselves or their friends and lovers. Crime, drugs, and fractured families figure heavily. In “My Dealer, In Memoriam,” two young men — one a stumbling heroin junkie, the other, a fast-twitching meth addict — converge on the home of their dealer, who has just died. Are they pilfering a dead man’s stash or preventing the dealer’s family from adding shame to their suffering? As they roam about the house looking for glassines, they console an angry pit bull, comically belittle one another for their night-and-day choice of hard drugs, and try to reconstruct how all three of them went off the rails into addiction so quickly and thoroughly.
Skinner allows his characters to speak in a language that is evocative, unsentimental, and empirical. “When you get addicted, your body forgets how to produce its own natural endorphins, and when your powders wear off, it stands churlishly aside like a cheated-on wife and says, ‘You feel bad? Go to your lover,’ knowing that your lover no longer thrills you like at the beginning of the affair but is now necessary to palliate the pain of separation of you from your body.” Not all stories are as compelling. “Clean” follows a young man as he borrows money from a loan shark to finance his girlfriend’s anti-acne procedures. She bails to California without even a text, leaving her boyfriend to have his body beat to a pulp as payment. It’s a grim story that does little to reveal the two characters’ motivations for their alternately heinous and selfless acts.
As a writer, Skinner seems to specialize in conjuring the mind-set of troubled youths whose reckless impulsiveness masks and processes personal anguish. In press releases, Skinner says many of the stories are informed by his previous job working as a Spanish-English translator in several New Mexico courts. But in this collection’s best pieces, there is a deep intimacy on display — the warbled patterns of characters’ thoughts and language tics, the endless details of their family conflicts — that is hard-wrought from a lifetime of careful observation.