Mysterious Skin is broken down twice: First by colors (I just finished the “Blue” section), and then by characters (“Brian Lackey”, “Neil McCormick”, “Wendy Peterson”, and “Deborah Lackey”).
So far, this book is amazing. I’m usually not a fan of “gay literature” (and I wrote about why a few times during my Lesbian and Gay Literature class — I should post those journal entries sometime soon), but this book is different… it’s more “queer” than “gay” (again, something I theorized about in my journal entries).
Often times, marginalized literature tries to show people who aren’t in that marginalized group that the marginalized people are just like everyone else — they fall in love the same, they have the same hopes and dreams, etc. Mysterious Skin seems to be playing it both ways.
Brian Lackey is the “acned, bookworm” (96) who, within the first pages of the book, blacks-out during a Little League game. The same summer that the black-outs begin, Brian, his sister Deborah, and his mother witness some strange lights that they assume to be UFOs. The initial encounter propels Brian into a UFO obsession.
The black-outs, the obsession with the paranormal (Brian receives a book about the Loch Ness Monster for Christmas), and dropping-out of Little League creates tension between Brian and his father (who is obsessed with baseball and plays on a local team). Brian’s dad doesn’t think he is manly enough and somewhat girly.
Although it hasn’t been explicitly stated yet, it’s fairly obvious that Brian is gay. In addition to his awkwardness and shyness (which could also be due to his nerdiness, though), when him and his sister are watching a baseball game, he explains:
We watched the players’ bodies (7).
I once wrote a paper about the obsession with bodies within gay literature. I found it really significant that Brian noted watching the players bodies — not the players themselves or their swings or anything like that, but the players’ bodies. Additionally, Brian notes that other kids tease him by calling him “four eyes” and “pansy” (49). Pansy is pretty gay, yeah?
So far, the most striking incident from Brian’s childhood (to me) was the “initiation into manhood” that his father put him through. After returning from somewhere (church? a ball game? I cannot remember…), Brian’s family comes upon a large snapping turtle in the middle of the road. Brian’s dad gets excited about the idea of of turtle soup, so he manages to get the turtle into a bag in order to bring it home. Once home, Brian’s dad tells Brian that he wants Brian’s help with something — killing the turtle. Brian notes that he had carved fish before, but nothing had been as gruesome as killing the turtle. The whole scene comes across very violent and brutal. I kept thinking, “This is a very masculine thing to do — father and son slaughtering a snapping turtle.”
So basically, Brian is a nerdy, shy, quiet kid who loves UFOs and has a tense relationship with his mother and gets along really well with his sister (who ultimately moves to San Francisco after high school graduation). Although he seems like a nice kid, he seems pretty “normal” and ordinary. If he is indeed gay, he’s one of those “gays are just like straight people”-types, it seems.
Neil McCormick, on the other hand, is totally different. When he narrates there is a certain edge to his language — shorter sentences, more profanity and slang, etc.
Neil realizes pretty quickly that he is gay. One night during an intense storm, he crawls under his mom’s (who is single and dates a lot of different men) bed and finds a Playgirl magazine. He begins to fantasize about having sex with men (men with mustaches, hairy chests, etc. — which I find somewhat funny and gross at the same time).
Shortly after Neil figures that he likes men, the coach of his Little League team (which his mom signs him up for so she can spent more time with her boyfriend) takes interest in him — in a very sexual way. Neil notices this the first time they meet and it excites him — he likes being looked at and objectified as an object of desire:
His gaze paused on me. Desire sledge hammered my body, a sensation I wasn’t sure I had a name for (22).
The coach’s desire for Neil is realized pretty soon thereafter. The coach tells Neil that the team is going to watch a movie together. It turns out, however, that the coach lied and it was just him and Neil. The fact that the coach deceived Neil’s mother seems to turn him on:
It surprised me that he would like to Mom, but more than that, it excited me (27).
After the movie they return to the coach’s house, which is a total kid heaven (bean bag chairs, Atari, travel-sized cereal boxes [the kind that parents never buy], candy, etc.). The coach manages pretty quickly to get inside Neil’s pants and sex ensues:
I knew what was happening. Half of me realized it wasn’t right. The other half wanted it to happen (35)… It happened, I told myself; it happened. And I had liked it (37).
The book almost dares to ask: sometimes when a child is molested, does he/she enjoy it/want it to happen? Besides all of the potential issues of power and creepiness, it is something to ask (and something Foucault touches on in The Use of Pleasure. Of course, their relationship doesn’t last because the coach transfers to another Little League team (and then leaves town amid suspicions of his behavior). Neil longs for him, nonetheless. Oh, and every time the coach did something to Neil, he gave him a $5 bill.
The introduction of Wendy, Neil’s best friend, brings an interesting perspective. She basically fetishizes Neil as a gay boy and loves him because he is different. She sees him as something exotic that will spice up her life. Even the way he talks excites her:
From Neil, all those fucks and shits were more than just throwaway cuss words. They adopted some special meaning (55).
My favorite story that Wendy tells is about a “sÃ©ance” where Neil makes a move on another (straight) boy. After Neil seduces/”hypnotizes” the kid, he gets on top of him and basically dry humps and then kisses him. This, of course, freaks the boy out. Despite being all macho, though, the boy cries. I just love the irony of it:
“Queer,” Robert P. said, plus something in Spanish. He was crying (57).
As for Wendy’s strange obsession/exoticization of Neil, at least she seems very aware of it. When she finally musters up the courage to talk to him, she recalls:
“You are a queer, aren’t you?” I said the Q-word as if it were synonymous with movie star or deity. There was something wonderful about the word, something that set him apart from everyone else, something I wanted to identify with… I was falling in love. Not so much with him, though, as with the aura of him (59).
I also loved the way Neil reacted (as explained by Wendy) to sex education in class. I’m also impressed with the fact that Neil knows he’s gay by fifth grade and isn’t afraid to be vocal about it:
“Ridiculous,” Neil whispered. “Not everyone fucks like that.” Some kids heard him, glared and sneered. “Some people take it up the ass” (62).
The story about Halloween is pretty traumatic. Neil and Wendy “kidnap” a retarded kid and nearly kill him when they put firecrackers in his mouth and light them off. When Wendy freaks out (rightly so) about the kid telling his parents about what Neil and Wendy did, Neil remedies the situation by giving the kid a blowjob. Neil explains:
“When I was little,” Neil said, “a man used to do this to me” (71).
That revelation disturbs Wendy:
Where had [Neil’s mother] been when the man from Neil’s past had put his mouth on her son like this? (72)
But ultimately she realizes the risk Neil took by revealing this to her:
Neil had shown a part of himself I knew he’d shown no one else. I reckoned I had asked for it. Now I was bound to him (74).
Deborah (Brian’s older sister)’s chapter mainly involves her observations about her brother (shy, no friends, etc.). It also tells their parents got divorced. Neither Brian nor Deborah seems too sad when their father leaves.
The final Neil chapter of the “Blue” section finds Neil becoming intrigued with the idea of hustling.
The idea of money for sex thrilled me like nothing before (85)… The idea of their wanting to pay for me rendered me breathless, thrilled, delirious, flustered (86).
When Neil manages to find a client, he can’t forget the coach, who treated him better:
While Coach’s fingers had “caressed” me, Charlie’s merely “touched” (88).
As Neil cums, the man swallows his load. The man notes that it wasn’t safe for him to do, but that since Neil was a kid it didn’t really matter since he knew Neil would be clean. Neil notes:
It was the first time I’d heard a man say that, but it wouldn’t be the last (89).
I can’t help but think this foreshadows, but who knows. Neil later discovers that when the guy swallowed he sorta bit his dick a little, causing it to bruise.
… so as the “Blue” section ends, it’s not at all clear how Brian is related to Chris and Wendy. We also don’t have any explicit proof that Brian is gay, but it seems rather obvious. I totally love this book. I haven’t been this excited/enthralled with nonfiction for quite a while (I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, but it didn’t get me excited and happy like this one does — it wasn’t joyful and funny like Mysterious Skin). I can’t wait to get further into the book and finally see how Greg Araki translates it to film.