Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adrian Louis, Skins (1995)

Poet, short story writer, and former journalist, Adrian Louis presents a harshly comic vision of Indian life in this novel set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota. He immerses the reader in a compelling mix of Indian and white cultures and the resulting ambiguities, competing worldviews, and conflicted values.

Rudy, the Indian cop, portrays these confusing conflicts, representing both the law in his tribal police uniform and vigilante justice in his blackface and pantyhose mask. Revealing other dimensions of Rudy's confusion, Louis explores his relationship to the women in his life. Married and estranged from his wife, Rudy indulges his growing attraction to his cousin's wife, Stella, while he carries on with other men's wives as well.

Meanwhile, afflicted with hypertension, he takes meds that affect his sexual performance, and much of the novel traces the rising and falling cycles of his libido, all of which are unpredictable and seemingly under the spell of forces beyond him. It is significant that Iktomi, the trickster spirit and shape-shifter, is a central theme in the novel, for appearance and reality, wisdom and stupidity, pride and shame, love and rage are all in a continuing dance for dominance.

Also at the center of the story is Rudy's relationship with his alcoholic older brother, Mogey. While casting an unblinking eye on the devastating impact of alcohol consumption on the reservation, Louis both condemns and forgives those who seek oblivion in the bottom of the bottle.

In his hands, Mogey is a wonderful creation. While there are vague allusions to the grim effect of two tours of duty in Vietnam, Louis doesn't excuse Mogey for choosing his path of self-destruction. Yet through his brother Rudy, the reader can begin to understand the deep love possible for someone unable to resist the pull of despair.

This book is not for everyone, but it's a commendable read for what it has to say about the Indian nations - in their own voices and without the moralizing or sentimentality of those who have never walked in their shoes. Also worth watching is the film Skins (2002, available at amazon and netflix), which is based on the book.

Friday's Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Coming up: The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)


  1. Well, I guess I could read this one to feel better about my own problems. :)

  2. Saw the movie, don't recall I was aware of their being a book, though. Might need to seek it out. Thanks, Ron.

  3. I can understand some of the spiritual feelings and beliefs and the resentment against living on reservations, but I think it's carried too far.

  4. Wow, what a character. We all have our flaws, but some have more than others.

  5. This book has been made into an enjoyable and well-acted movie too.

  6. Charles, something about walking in another man's moccasins.

    Chris, the movie smooths off the edges of the book; it's gritty.

    Oscar, given that history, I would have no idea where a reasonable person would draw the line at "too far."

    Sage, depends on who's counting.

    Veronica, you are right; great native American cast, including Eric Schweig, Graham Greene, and Gary Farmer.