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In his debut novel, Jeffrey Luscombe brings us back to a place we haven’t seen much of in recent literature: the closet. In an era when many gays come out in their teens, the protagonist of Shirts and Skins remains resolutely in the closet until his thirties. Luscombe thus offers an intriguing, at times disturbing, peek into the mind of a character who is only half aware of his own feelings.
Josh Moore grows up in the working-class town of Hamilton, Ontario, in a family whose dysfunction is gradually revealed through the first several chapters. Both of his parents work in the steel mill; Josh, a sensitive and artistically inclined child, soon develops a desire to escape Hamilton for a more open and sophisticated environment. His father sinks into a deep depression that eventually shrinks his world to the degree that he seldom leaves the house. In the most disturbing sequence in the book, Josh deliberately brings on an asthma attack just to pull his father out of his depression and get him to pay attention to him. When the father fails the test, the result is heartbreaking.
Josh gets no more support in school than at home. His budding sexuality is actively discouraged by a homophobic gym teacher and then, in another disturbing chapter, Josh becomes the victim of a brutal beating. The experience changes him almost overnight: he effectively buries his homosexual yearnings and becomes a typical tough kid—fitting in by smoking, drinking, and objectifying girls. The bad behavior affects his schoolwork and ability to focus, which destroys his plans for college and escape. When we next see Josh he is working in a factory and spending many of his free hours drunk.
Though there are clues throughout that Josh retains his attraction to men (in a strip club, as he and a friend both receive lap dances, Josh spends more time looking at his friend than at the strippers), his life becomes increasingly conventional. When, in the penultimate chapter, he finally allows himself to be seduced by a man, this reader breathed a sigh of relief.
Luscombe carefully constructs Josh’s childhood through well-rendered observations that effectively convey both character and period. Once Josh slams the closet door on himself, however, he becomes far less accessible to the reader. The adult Josh is almost lacking in affect, his life dictated by circumstance rather than volition. While this makes sense for the plot, it becomes a source of frustration for the reader, who feels somewhat distanced from a protagonist who, as a child, was much more engaging.
Because the adult Josh is so deeply repressed, we are seldom privy to his feelings. His sexual attractions are revealed not through his thoughts, but through the text’s physical description of the men he encounters. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Josh isn’t just observing what these men look like; he’s checking them out. This technique is somewhat overused in the coming-out chapter, as we get belabored descriptions of the various men Josh meets on a business trip. When we later learn that he has been deliberately looking for a man to have sex with, however, the reader feels a bit cheated. Since the entire story is told from Josh’s point of view, we are willing to accept that we aren’t told things he’s not aware of, but when he’s conscious of such feelings, the reader should be, as well. Otherwise, the revelation feels unnecessarily contrived for dramatic effect.
The resolution of the story comes a bit too quickly: after a couple of sexual experiences in his first weekend out of the closet, we flash forward several years, when Josh is comfortably ensconced in what appears to be a long-term, functional relationship. After a long hibernation, Josh is finally alive again, and Luscombe’s prose confirms it: at last, the character is almost as vividly rendered as when he was a child.
It would be unfair to dismiss Shirts and Skins as just another coming-out story, a genre whose time has arguably come and gone, thanks to the ease with which many GLBT people can now express themselves in the world. Luscombe is clearly after something different in this book: it is less about coming out than it is about going in. Josh’s repression is far more interesting than his liberation, which is a much more familiar story. In his adherence to the closet, as in his father’s depression-fueled withdrawal from the world, we see the tragedy of self-denial. Unlike his father, though, Josh eventually finds the strength to pull himself out of denial and embrace his truth. It’s a journey that still resonates for us all.
Shirts and Skins
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9781937627003, 226 pp.