Friday, April 25, 2008

"Skin and Bones" by Thorne Smith

I LOVE the yearly book sale at the United Church. Besides discovering all the different genres they can tuck the New Testament into -- fiction is my personal favourite -- I always uncover at least half a dozen $2.00 gems.

My definition of a gem is a book that I can't get anywhere else. These are usually oddball hardcover editions that were published previous to 1960, often with handwritten inscriptions on the first page. I don't know for sure that these books are unusual when I first find them, but I can generally make a pretty good guess...and this year my haul was better than ever.

I've almost finished reading the real star of the bunch: a 1939 edition of Thorne Smith's "Skin and Bones," a smutty sex farce originally published in 1933. Who is Thorne Smith? Well, somebody has put up a fanboy page about him, another person has scanned many of his novels. There's a scanty Wikipedia page as well, but in general it appears that Smith has been largely forgotten...

Maybe for a very good reason. I can't figure out if he's the world's worst writer or if he was an extremely subtle satirist. Based only on this book I'm leaning towards the first hypothesis.

"Skin and Bones" is about a man who periodically turns into a skeleton due to exposure to photographic chemicals. He rattles through a series of set-pieces involving a speakeasy, a mortuary, a barber shop, a doctor's office, and a gangster hotel. The situation is the same in every location: he turns into a skeleton, his clothes fall off, everybody is terrified by or disgusted by him, the women ponder euphemistically about his lack of manhood, and then he freaks out and everybody runs away.

Sometimes he's wearing a false beard that everybody likes to discuss for some reason.

These "skeleton" scenes are followed by him suddenly regaining his flesh, but being naked and drunk and besieged by pretty women, often while still wearing the beard. It's like a college kid's never-ending wet dream.

But there's something fascinating about it all. Part of it is the novelty of reading sexy bad literature from the 1930s, but the most (in fact the only) real interesting part of the book is how repetitive and poorly-written it is. Ninety percent of the book consists of disconnected, almost stream-of-consciousness banter between two-dimensional characters, generally about how disgusted they are by the skeleton in their midst. The jokes are obvious and feeble and they're all the same -- often literally -- and none of it seems to have any connection with what happened before. They come, they banter, they move along.

Each time I start to hate the book, though, I realize that it's written in a similar style to two well-regarded satires that I also hated: "Gulliver's Travels" and "Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich." Both books relied on satire so heavy-handed and repetitious that the intent could not be mistaken...maybe "Skin and Bones" is supposed to be the same way, except that I'm not even grasping the intent? I say this because occasionally -- every fifty pages or so -- Thorne Smith came up with a genuinely funny insight that actually made me laugh, so I know he's not a TOTALLY awful writer. Maybe I just don't "get" this stuff?

Anyway, as much as I dislike the book I have to admire the twenty illustrations, most of which involve pretty women showing off their legs, sometimes with a goofy skeleton leering at them. "Skin and Bones" is worth it for that alone, however annoying is the actual content (or lack thereof).

No comments: