Book Review: Shirts & Skins

It’s been a while since I came across a book that pulled me in and kept me hooked. Jeffrey Luscombe’s Shirts and Skins did though.

The book is written as a series of individual stories, seen through the eyes of Josh Moore, a young boy who grows up with his family in the poorer part of Hamilton. The first couple stories, when Josh is just learning how to process the world around him, are filled with past tragedy and scandal, but we only perceive as much of them as the very young Josh does. Already he begins to learn how to mimic the other people in his life.

As times goes on, Josh becomes even more of a human chameleon, observing, adapting, becoming what he needs to be to survive. The world around him is filled with artificial divisions. His family has them, between those who are already saved by Christ and those who aren’t. Sunday school has them, between God’s chosen people and everyone else. School has them, especially in gym class, between shirts and skins. Society has them, between gay and straight.

Although this novel is about Josh’s coming out, it’s about a lot more. It’s about what it means to be a man. Josh looks for someone to model his behavior after, and of course, a young boy looks first to his father. Josh’s father, however, suffers from emotional problems that get worse as time goes on. Josh then starts looking around at school, but the boys looking back at him see something else in Josh, something that Josh can barely sense beneath the surface. This climaxes with a powerful scene in junior high.

There is a strong connection between the fag and his bully, a connection.. and an attraction. What is about bullying that can cause us to either turn inward and find comfort within ourselves or, as Josh did, strive to emulate our tormentors? With an increasingly broken father, Josh takes as male role models the very boys that bullied him. This hyper-masculinity Josh develops doesn’t gain him friends, but only pushes him into a bigger isolation. The walls he has raised are thick, and he is protected behind them, through school, into the workforce, and eventually into marriage.

Some of the scenes of this book deeply resonated with me: the dividing lines between families at an event like a funeral, where the black sheep of the family gather together, bound in unity against the separations forced upon them; that one day the son who has always feared being a disappointment TO his father realizes how he is disappointed IN his father; the magnetic way a closeted gay man is pulled towards other men, how he notices their look, their smell, and the lengths to which he will go to deny those feelings to anyone, including himself; the simple happiness that comes from becoming who one is meant to be.

Submitted By: Rob B. Follow him on Twitter @robbrowatzke

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