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by Kellie Wells

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Turning loose a Midwestern species of magical realism on a small, God-haunted town in Kansas, Kellie Wells charms strangeness and wonder from what might be mistaken for “ordinary” life. Here is Martin LeFavor, convinced his father has been nabbed by a solicitous band of aliens in desperate need of skin; Charlotte McCorkle, a vexed visionary who


Turning loose a Midwestern species of magical realism on a small, God-haunted town in Kansas, Kellie Wells charms strangeness and wonder from what might be mistaken for “ordinary” life. Here is Martin LeFavor, convinced his father has been nabbed by a solicitous band of aliens in desperate need of skin; Charlotte McCorkle, a vexed visionary who believes she has helped her husband escape the flesh; Zero Loomis, plagued by sacrificial angels, the memory of his father, and a shadowy sexual identity; his sister Rachel, an amateur masseuse determined to settle accounts with the past, in particular with her lovingly violent father; Ruby Tuesday, Rachel’s daughter, a budding oracle, the embodiment of possibility and prey to history; and, holding this tilted cosmos together, fifteen-year-old Ivy Engel, who carefully measures the borders of Self, advocates for neighborhood bats, and frets about the health of her friend Duncan, his harrowed body mapped and perhaps ravaged by subcutaneous scars.
What happens when the spirit exceeds the limits of the skin? More troubling yet, what happens if it doesn’t? These are the questions the inhabitants of What Cheer, Kansas, must finally face as their paths cross and recross in an ever more intriguing—and perhaps liberating—puzzle.

Editorial Reviews

“However unbelievable the stories that make this novel are, you come away wanting to believe them. Ms Wells rightly assumes that we as readers, as people, wish to break from the constraints of ground, to shed our skin, sprout wings and fly. Within these stories she explores humanity, from the humdrum of a broken septic tank spilling effluvium into a backyard, to the weighty issues of death when a child watches a man executed on television—all this, the ylem that became us is found in these pages, mystical and strange and held together by our skin.” —Diagram
Publishers Weekly
Wells extracts marvelous absurdity from a mundane landscape, the Kansas town of What Cheer, where obscure physical afflictions and deep existential questions weigh on a cast of neighborhood residents that includes a deacon in midlife crisis, a gay punk-rocker grasping for self-worth and a little girl with powers of divination. The shifting narratives and humor-tinged misadventures create a series of vignettes rather than a classic story arc; Wells's gift is language play. "I decline to be ground by your simplifying pestle into an easily digested set of sitcom characteristics you can swallow down without effort," says an emotionally wounded elderly woman, Charlotte McCorkle, summing up Wells's challenge to the reader throughout the book. Wells (the collection Compression Scars) often indulges her writerly flourishes to the point of alienation: "Zero's body throbbed, mortised to the superlunary, empyreal purlieu of being." But she rewards effort with a fantastical story that sweetens its bite with tabloid fare: an alien abduction, angel visitations and talking cows who try to explain God. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious debut sets magical realism loose upon the staid citizens of What Cheer, Kan. Fifteen-year-old Ivy Engel has a lot on her mind. A colony of bats has set up residence in her backyard; her best friend Duncan survived a moped accident only to learn that the resulting scars may kill him; and Ivy's been having vivid dreams of planets and eyeballs. Meanwhile, senior citizen Charlotte McCorkle resists taking her medication, has a vision of sorts on her driveway and confides to her hairdresser that her nephew, Gabriel, is an angel-not such a big deal, since angel sightings are a common occurrence in What Cheer. On the earthly plane, Rachel Loomis struggles to come to terms with her father's abuse and her mother's passive complicity. The mundane and the fantastical exist side by side in this small Kansas town without raising eyebrows. Rachel's daughter, Ruby Tuesday, appears to be an oracle of sorts, and her ability has strange side effects: A neighbor sees a lemon "bubble up from her abdomen and burst forth from her churning jacket in a startling fruit birth." When Martin LeFavor and his father encounter an alien spacecraft on their way home from the mall, the aliens take Martin's father, as they desperately need his skin. Cows offer wisdom to those needing guidance. "I'll tell you something I've learned from my transmigrational travails," says one bovine. "The Book of Life has many a misprint, and in the translation back into flesh, something is always lost." The chapters, many of which previously appeared in literary journals, are highly detailed and exquisitely written. But they don't cohere into a unified whole: Characters meet and interact without propelling the story forward;the narrative remains fragmented and unfocused. Doesn't quite work, but Wells's talent suggests that she's one to watch.
Kathryn Davis

"Kellie Wells unleashes the clamorous, resistless, marvelous voice of our world's collective unconscious, the language of ecstasy and despair in all its manifold registers. Reading Skin is like finding yourself inside one of the great medieval paintings, every last detail perfectly rendered, and exploding with celestial meaning." —Kathryn Davis, author of the novels Hell and Versailles
Booklist - Carol Haggas

"In this surrealistic phantasmagoria, Wells writes with an intoxicating lyricism of the magic and mystery that lurk within and without the frailest and finest among us."—Booklist

"In this surrealistic phantasmagoria, Wells writes with an intoxicating lyricism of the magic and mystery that lurk within and without the frailest and finest among us."—Booklist

— Carol Haggas

Product Details

UNP - Bison Books
Publication date:
Flyover Fiction Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Kellie Wells

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-4824-5

Chapter One

Ivy Engel

Compression Scars

Okay, so I live several blocks away from an electrical power plant,
which is, I know, bad news. I saw that story on 60 Minutes, or maybe
it was 20/20 or 48 Hours-one of those wake-up-and-sniff-the-scandal
shows, hand-held camera wobbling on the shoulder of the crack cameraman
in hotfooted pursuit of the story, shows that want to be the
first to tell you the way you've been living your life all along is going to
prove to be fatal-and now I'm checking my body every ten minutes
for some sort of sign, early detection and all. I've moved my digital
clock radio across the room, and I never stand next to the dishwasher
when it's achurn. I'm playing hot potato with electromagnetic rays,
dodging something I can't sense at all, and sometimes I have to pinch
my arm and remind myself I'm on Planet Earth. I have this sneaking
fear that somewhere out there in a remote pocket of the cosmos
there is intelligent life, an easily amused race of beings sitting in a
main street movie theater, watching me through 3-D glasses, laughing
their scrawny, alien-green butts off. We all know that invisible peril
burgeons around us, the weather itself a protean virus we'll eventually
have to flee to Mars toantidote. Maybe it sounds cockeyed-of course
it does-but I get the bona fide jeebies sometimes not knowing where
to duck and what to cover. All these hidden assailants get to a girl.
And now I'm wondering if the power plant might explain the week I've
been having. Maybe a formerly loyal and punctual but now disgruntled
employee at the plant vengefully pushed some big red button with
the taunting warning: "Don't Push!" beneath it, and it unleashed stray
volts that went wilding in my neighborhood.

Among other less worrisome events that have occurred in the past
week: a colony of bats has settled in my backyard; my best friend,
Duncan, has begun wearing only blue clothing; and my breasts have
grown a whole cup size, as if I were just feeding them better. When
I first noticed the bats, I had gone outside to watch the Roto Rooter
men dig up the Dorsetts' backyard. Mr. Dorsett paced back and forth
as the muddy men hoisted parts of the lame septic tank out of the
hole. I admit I was sort of glad about it. I could tell Mr. Dorsett
was embarrassed by the whole thing because he was stinking up the
neighborhood. It was the middle of May and even though it wasn't
sweltering yet, neighbors were shutting their doors and windows and
turning on the AC.

Mr. Dorsett looked over at our yard periodically to see if my father
had come out to watch the muddy gash that Mr. D.'s backyard was
quickly becoming, and I'd wave and smile like we were old pals, old
crew team cronies. Across Mr. Dorsett's yard I saw Mrs. McCorkle.
She was kneeling in her garden, tugging at something. When she
looked up, Mr. Dorsett waved at her nervously, and she smiled and
yelled, "Hello, Ivy." I smiled back. I don't think Mr. Dorsett and Mrs.
McCorkle were ever bosom chums, but for some reason Mrs. McCorkle
has found Mr. D. to be especially snubable lately, ever since
Mr. McCorkle-who's a swell mensch, we all miss him-was put in the
nursing home.

No love is lost between Mr. Dorsett and me either. When I was
eight years old, he wouldn't allow his twelve-year-old daughter, Judy,
to play with me anymore. He claimed he was afraid she would pick
up infantile habits or her brain wouldn't be properly stimulated if she
didn't constantly hang out with kids her own age (despite the slack-jawed,
driftwood stare of the neighborhood cretins toward whom she
naturally gravitated). Personally I think he didn't like me because of
my unorthodox religious views. I think he was just steamed because
I'd told Judy that when I prayed, I spoke to my stomach, because that's
where I thought God was-on the inside somewhere, maybe perching
on a branch of the bronchial tree or lying on the shores of the islets of
Langerhans, overseeing the production of insulin.

Judy told me the next day she was poking herself in the navel, matching
fingers to ribs, on the lookout for signs of a higher power hiding
inside her, when her father walked in and asked her what in Henry's
name she was doing. Judy, a hopelessly earnest and brick-headed literalist,
told Mr. Dorsett what I'd said and asked him if God in the
pancreas wouldn't portend problems for the body later on (having
just covered insulin and bile production in science class). She probably
foresaw divine diabetes in my future and pictured my organs sagging
from the weight of being occupied so intimately. I suspect she was
hoping to locate the tumor of God inside her stomach so she could
coax Him up into her arm or cheek or some other harmless spot where
He'd be less likely to interfere with her bodily processes. Though she
wouldn't have said so to her father, going to that church they went to,
I think she was fretful about becoming God-clogged.

Mr. Dorsett was a deacon at a church where going to the movies,
even a Saturday matinee of Million Dollar Duck, was a sin, although it
was a-okay to watch television (all sources of venality apparently having
been determined long before Philo Farnsworth began dissecting
the images that would later litter TV screens, go figure). You weren't
supposed to dance either. It was probably a punishable sin if you were
even caught swaying a little, accidentally even (like when your mother
is letting down the hem of a dress that was a bad idea when it was new, a
dress you have no intention of wearing to some awards ceremony you
have even less intention of attending, and your body, becoming fluent
in movement, cannot be becalmed by lips pursed around straight pins
entreating, Hold still). And music was definitely out unless the lyrics
mentioned rising from the grave or the blood of the lamb or some
such. I attended this church. Once. I sat between Judy and Mr. Dorsett.
The minister didn't speak in a normal tone of voice; he bellowed, like
he thought we all suffered from hearing loss (after several Sundays
of that, I think we would have-probably an evangelical strategy for
quick, resistance-free supplication: deaf lambs don't bleat back, a way
to shut the mutton up). It seemed he kept looking directly at me, and
I was sure the blank look he found on my face was spurring him on,
his voice rising to an increasingly frothy pitch, the way people will
gradually begin to yell when talking to recent refugees or immigrants
from ... Tunisia, or Finland, outer Mongolia, say, in the hope that if
they bray the words, their listeners will somehow suddenly understand
this language that's only recently been stuffed in their mouths and ears.
I felt a little like a refugee myself, flung onto the shores of a land that
was governed by laws more hostile, I was beginning to fear, than the
one I'd fled. By the end, the preacher was leaning out over the pulpit
and practically screaming the Word. His fists were often raised, like
he was spoiling for a scrap, all too ready to go a few rounds with
the lurking evil in the world, pretzel Satan into a half nelson, and it
occurred to me that perhaps many a fundamentalist pulpiteer is really
just a frustrated prize fighter. His face seemed to balloon as his sermon
reached its shrill summit, and the thick folds of his cheeks flushed red. I
don't think he was getting enough oxygen. He exhaled often enough,
but I didn't hear him inhale much. He had gray, cowlicked hair that
kept flying forward in an arc over his eyes as he shook and nodded his
head. It's funny how some people think they have to look like they're
having a stroke to convince you of the incontrovertible God's-honest
truth of what they're saying. I remember shaking and kicking my feet
during the sermon, and Mr. Dorsett slapped my knees.

So I was secretly pleased about this septic tank fiasco because I
thought it definitely pointed to Mr. Dorsett's ailing karma. My friend
Sai, who first gave me the skinny on karma, tells me it's not fair to be
such a selective believer, and that's what I am I guess, fair-weather. I
believe in it when I think people are getting what they deserve, which,
let's face it, is pretty blue moon. But I have a hard time accepting the
idea that famished babies with bubbled, empty stomachs are in that
predicament because they were maybe contract killers or dirty despots
or grubbers of ill-gotten gain in a previous life. She says this kind of
thinking is wrongheaded, and that I'd probably feel differently if I'd
spent any time around toiling hordes of starving people, your hungry
huddled masses, if I were stripped of the privilege of three squares
a day (I felt compelled here to point out that I'd recently begun to
deny myself breakfast). She says I might look for different answers
to questions that don't occur to a well-fed girl like me. Still, babies
are blank, nearly smooth-brained, with a wrinkle for complacency, a
wrinkle for fear, and a gaping ravine for hunger and thirst. So it's not
like they'd learn a lesson or anything. I haven't mentioned this last part
to Sai, because I'm afraid she'll lose patience and tell me I'm souring
my own karmic destiny with such willful misunderstanding, which is
what I always fear, a curdled fate.

Anyhow, as I watched Mr. Dorsett pop Tums like they were Sweet
Tarts, I saw them, I saw the bats. I didn't know what they were at first. I
was picking a scabby fungus off our sycamore tree, half-expecting it to
bleed, and thinking it was odd the tree had some dead leaves. Then, a
little higher up, I noticed these yellowish-brown bulbs dangling from
the branches, and it appeared our sycamore tree had suddenly grown
peaches, like it thought it might get more respect as a fruit-bearer.

I reached up to inspect one of these dead leaves, and as I touched
it, an electric feeling zipped up my arm and across my cheek. This leaf
was soft and angry, and it began to shake and screech. I instinctively
fell to the ground, in case it got a notion to dive-bomb my head. It
unfolded wings that were like little flannel rags, then this leaf and a
few friends dropped from the tree and flapped away. As they screamed
by, echolocating like crazy, I actually glimpsed their faces, these furry,
crumpled, cartoon faces. They looked like one of those pictures you'd
see in the backs of magazines or inside the covers of matchbooks, and
if you drew it and sent it in, somebody, somewhere, for a small fee,
would tell you whether or not you should go to art school.

I examined the tree more closely and counted fifteen masquerading
bats total. Some hung freely on the branches, convincingly miming
dead leaves, and others were curled up tight like tiny fists. They ranged
in color from yellowish to orangish brown, but none were black like
bats are supposed to be. After I fully realized what I was looking at,
I got a little spooked, thinking maybe they'd gotten their coloring
from blood feasts, like maybe steady plasma transfusions had begun to
redden their skin and fur, the way if you ate ten pounds of carrots in an
afternoon you might end up with skin tinted the color of cantaloupe.
Then I noticed how beautiful the bats were. They looked like yellow
flowers gone to seed. I reached up to touch one tucked beneath a leaf.

"You all right?"


Excerpted from Skin
by Kellie Wells
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kellie Wells is an assistant professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. Her collection of short fiction, Compression Scars, won the 2001 Flannery O’Connor Award from the University of Georgia Press and the 2003 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award.

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