Shirts and Skins – Jeffrey Luscombe (Chelsea Station Editions)

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Buy it now from TLAgay.com

The output of some publishers is so consistent that their
logo on a book raises my expectations. That’s the problem Chelsea Station
Editions has. I keep wondering when I pick up one of their books if this is the
one that will tarnish the crown. So far, however, the jewels keep glimmering
and Jeffrey Luscombe’s Shirts and Skins is no exception.

This collection of linked stories concerns Josh Moore, who
lives with his folks in slummy, industrial Hamilton, Ontario. He envisions a
life away from the steel mills once he grows up but finds adulthood even more
confining and frustrating than being a kid. He fights through dead-end jobs,
community college, nights at the straight strip club with his co-workers,
substance abuse and a bad marriage to become comfortable with the man he is
rather than who he thinks he should be.

The first stories about Josh as a boy amply illustrate
Luscombe’s skill at characterization, not only for his protagonist but for the
rest of Josh’s family as well. Particularly deft is his portrayal of Josh’s
father, Ted, who has an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown, morphing from a
brash, self-confident, long-haired Socialist into a reclusive Bible-thumping
shell of a hodophobe who can’t even drive to his own mother’s funeral. Luscombe
handles this transition with brave assurance, never putting a foot in
unsympathetic territory.

Josh also transitions from an overweight boy into a lean
adolescent boy with a ready sneer and a penchant for rye and Diet Pepsi who
stops just short of being a bully. Due to a particularly traumatic incident,
Josh has his sexuality firmly shoved into the back of his closet. Even so,
situations occur at the straight strip clubs or with friends that smoulder with
sexual tension—indeed, that tension bleeds from nearly every character. By the
time that tension is released by his coming out, we feel the relief as keenly
as does Josh.

But the final story is the real masterpiece; a synthesis of
both Josh’s family stories and his new queer life as Josh and his partner,
Glenn, visit Ted at the nursing home and take him out to breakfast.
Heartbreaking and revelatory, it brings both halves of Josh’s world together
and meshes them effortlessly.

Luscombe’s prose is never overwritten nor is it understated
and spare. It’s tight and economical without losing well-chosen details, never
forsaking Josh’s voice in favor of the author. Best of all, his dialogue is
wholly natural and never sounds written.

In the best Chelsea Station Editions tradition, Shirts
and Skins
is well-plotted and told with a craftsman’s touch, deeply felt
characters and a gritty sense of place. It belongs next to David Pratt’s Bob
the Book
and Michael Graves’ Dirty Ones as a benchmark for gay
literary fiction. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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