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[350] Mysterious Skin – Scott Heim

” It’s amazing what people know. They just never say anything, they deny it because they don’t want to believe. ” [16:270]

Mysterious Skin is an original and imaginative representation of the effects of child molestation, and although the author is raw and graphic in his writing, which adopts narratives of the two then-8-year-old boys and their close friends, his style offers an unique way of bringing ordinary characters to an exciting new level.

The book opens with a mysterious scene: Brian Lackey, 8, is found bleeding under the crawl space of his house, having endured a trauma of which he cannot recall details, nor can he account for an entire five-hour period of time. During the formative years he slowly recalls fragments of the night’s details. Repression and fear might have rendered his willfully blurring all that happened. Brain begins to believe that he may have been the victim of an alien encounter.

The more I remembered, the more alone I felt, as though some devious secret were just now being revealed, as if for ten years I’d been the butt of an enormous joke. Yet I knew the information that tangled like wire inside my head was all-important, clues that moved toward some destination. [9:136]

Also 8, and member of Little League, Neil McCormick’s reaction to the abuse meted out by the coach couldn’t be more different. Raised by a single mother, Neil is already aware of his homosexuality when he meets the coach. He fancies himself with him and readily submits to what is asked of him. Of course, Neil is wise beyond his years, curious about his developing sexuality, he perceives the coach’s scheme to satiate his own pedophilic craving as love, falling prey to his manipulations and coercion. By high school, he is living life on a dangerous fast-lane—hustling.

It was love, I told myself. Coach had loved me. But there had been others, boys whose faces I’d seen smiling from his photo albums. And I could remember three separate times when he’s brought other boys home to join in, to add fuel to the forbidden. Had one of the three been Brian? [14:227]

Memories of these two young men change, returning with visions and images brighter than ever, when Brian comes to Neil for help and, ultimately, the truth, with the help of Neil’s friend, Eric Preston. Mysterious Skin is as much a story about loss of innocence as it is about the power of young sexuality, and rarely is the inevitable link between the two so skillfully managed. Neil is as sinister as brain is clueless—but they both succumb to pedophile. One readily submits and the other freaks out with his eyes closed. The powerful coping mechanisms that even a child can find within himself when flirting with the thrill of the forbidden is the most fascinating aspect of the novel. At times I feel impatient with Brian’s prolonged assertion of his alien encounter but nobody other than the victim could truly relate to repercussion of being molested. On another occasion I feel my skin is crawling with fear. Whereas Neil indulges in uninhibited sex to relive that passion with the coach, Brain swims in a dreamscape. On top of giving an insight into the vulnerable adolescent male mind, Mysterious Skin explores influences that affect young adults, more so the ones exiled from society, like poverty, neglect, and marital failure.

272 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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12 Responses

  1. Have you seen the movie of this yet? I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but both have been on my list for a while now. If you want more of Scott, read We Disappear next. That’s the first book of his I read and it was brilliant. I then tried to read In Awe but just couldn’t get through it. Will definitely get to MS though this year thanks to your review now.

    • At the point of writing this review, I haven’t seen the film. But now I have! It’s one of the most fabulous films ever that deals with this difficult subject matter. I love how faithful and real the scenes are—avoiding graphic nature that might be disturbing but without compromising the seriousness of the boys’ experience. I would read We Disappeared next. 🙂

  2. This sounds like a very interesting book and I really liked your review.

  3. This one would be tough for me to read. Having a son and imagining him young and vulnerable to a pedophile would be hard for me to stomach.

    • Kathleen, the subject matter, like I have commented, is difficult to discuss, let alone visualizing. But the film is very well done that the subject with just the right subtlety.

  4. The film adaptation blew me away. This is such a clever concept. I’ve been meaning to read the book. Perhaps one day I will.

    • It sure does, especially on the part of Neil, who, after being molested by the little league coach, and whose actions he interpreted as love, slowly ventures down the fast lane to hustling as he looks for the same feelings and thrills as the coach’s love-making. At some parts it’s difficult to watch, such as his life in New York City. It does blow me away in both visual and mental sense.

  5. this book somehow reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita… this is also a book I would love to read… straight to my wishlist

  6. I have this book sitting on my shelf. I’ve been meaning to read it after I read his third book, We Disappear, which I enjoyed a lot.

  7. My next Scott Heim read is We Disappear. 🙂

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