Justin Courter's Skunk: A Love Story (Omnidawn Press) is a gimmicky novel whose gimmick almost works. To the extent that it makes the novel consistently enjoyable to read, in fact (it if is appropriate to call a narrative in which the main characer lives with skunks and drinks their musk "enjoyable"), it does work well enough. But ulimately the bizarre behavior that motivates the story recounted by the novel's first-person narrator seems designed to signal toward some broader thematic relevance I, for one, was unable to fully work out.
The narrator himself accounts for his attraction to skunk musk by connecting it to memories of his mother:
My mother drank quite a lot of beer when I was growing up. She always drank McDougal's--an imported brand that comes in a green bottle and has a slightly skunky aroma. This was the first scent to greet my nostrils in the morning and the last whiff I sniffed before falling asleep at night. I awoke each morning to the clanking of beer bottles as my mother opened and shut the door of the refrigerator to get out her first McDougal's before starting my breakfast. Then I heard more clinking of empty bottles, as she cleared the kitchen table, filled a large garbage bag with the previous day's bottles and carried them outside to put in a can by the street.
One day the narrator, Damien, brings home a dead skunk, thinking his mother will be able to brew her own beer using this "raw material out of which beer was made." Suffice it to say that his mother doesn't appreciate his gift, and it is only a few days after this incident that the mother is put into a mental hospital, where she eventually commits suicide. Out of this noxious mixture of childhood associations and ultimate trauma emerges, presumably, Damien's adult fixation on skunk musk.
The adult Damien is a loner and something of a misanthrope, although his misanthropy does not seem founded in an excessively high estimation of his own worth:
. . .My eyes are as dark as my hair and are extremely weak. For this reason I have worn thick glasses since I can remember. When I worked at Grund & Greene, I still had the same pair of black frames that had served me since high school, though my prescription had changed many times. Despite the fact that I am quite capable of making my way in the modern world, I know what a miserably inadequate creature, despite my efforts, I truly am. My constitution is so delicate and my eyes so weak that I would not have survived if I had dwelt in an earlier era of history, say, in the Stone Age. I would have been one of the casualties of natural selection--either killed by a wild boar during a hunt because I could not see it coming, or maimed by one of the bigger, stronger boys of the tribe before I reached the age where humans begin copulating--and thus would have been unlikely to pass my defective genes on to future generations. Hence, the race would have continued to grow stronger, as indeed it should. . . .
Still, Damien's inability to come to terms with the modern world, and all of its ways of reminding him he is "defective," is reminiscent of John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly, although Damien's later experiences with what can only be called musk-addiction (he eventually learns to "milk" his skunks and drinks the musk), read like a farcical turn on William S. Burroughs, and Courter's depiction of Damien's retreat to a rural area to become a farmer seems to draw strongly from T.C. Boyle. Ultimately, however, Damien's voice is distinctive, and it is to Courter's credit that this voice has a kind of compulsive power that keeps our curiosity alive despite the fact that Damien Youngquist is in many ways a pretty repulsive character.
Early in the novel Damien meets up with a woman named Pearl, a rogue marine biologist who has on obsession with fish similar to Damien's obsession with skunks. Thus able to tolerate each other's fetish, the two begin a sexually acrobatic love affair that is interrupted when Damien's skunk house is raided and the skunks killed, and when he encounters Pearl's self-described fiance and subsequently embarks on his rural adventure. Later Pearl returns, but she is unable to prevent Damien's apparent ruin: A latter-day hippie neighbor begins using Damien's skunk musk to create a new recreational drug and is busted; to get a lighter sentence for himself, he fingers Damien as the drug ring's mastermind. Damien is carted off to jail and later to a drug-treatment facility.
One of the reasons I liked this book is precisely its skillful use of first-person narration. I have more or less come to the conclusion that the only way an otherwise conventional narrative (and Skunk is, depite its unconventional subject and eccentric characters, essentially a narrative-driven novel, without much in the way of purely formal experimentation) can succeed, post-modernism and post-postmodernism, is through first-person narrative. The third-person central-consciousnes mode of narration (sometimes called the "free indirect style"), which has become the default mode of storytelling, providing us with both story and "pyschological realism," is now so worn out and tepid, at least for me, that only first-person narratives can poke through the narrative haze emitted by so many indifferently-related stories to capture my attention in the first place. Much can be done with first-person narrative, starting but not ending with the manipulation of the reader's trust in the story being told.
Thus, Skunk presents us with a first-person account by a character we have every reason to believe might not be clear-sighted, both literally--Damien's poor eyesight continues to deteriorate throughout the narrative, but whether this is a side-effect of the skunk musk or just a natural decline, given what we've been told about his poor vision, we really don't know--and figuratively. Might Damien, like his mother, be prone to mental illness? Might the skunk musk have exacerbated this problem? How much do we trust Damien's narrative as the accurate account of what "really" happened? For me, the existence of such potential amibiguity only deepens the novel's interest, creating layers of "meaning" that the third-person method necessarily excludes.
Unfortunately, as the novel nears its conclusion, the events become increasingly contrived and its portrayal of addiction heavy-handed. It seems as though Damien's story of addiction and recovery (as comical as it is) is being offered to us as containing some essential "truth" about addiction. Are we being told that the modern world has become so alienating that we are all led to our own addictions in order to cope with it? That, if so, we should be left alone to indulge them? That we ought to rise above them and find a way to live a productive life? These seem rather pat and familiar themes for a novel otherwise so unfamiliar in its style and its cast of characters.
Nonetheless, Justin Courter has admirably succeeded in taking a character so odd and behavior so potentially repugnant you might think nothing can be done with them and creating from them a surprisingly engaging novel. If it seems that Courter is daring you to read on after learning about his protagonist's habit, you should take the dare because you might find yourself hooked on Skunk.