Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: Robert Ward's "Shedding Skin"

Robert Ward channeled a bit of future David Sedaris in his 1972 novel, Shedding Skin. In a series of comical but heartbreaking vignettes, Ward tells the story of a young man named Bobby, from adolescence through the first stages of adulthood. From the basement of a Baltimore home to the mountainside cabin of a crazy family named the Stumps to a hippie commune in Haight-Ashbury (in a world that reveals hints of queer identity), the protagonist truly discovers himself in the most ridiculous coming-of-age story I have ever read. As the author says in the book's final chapters, he "just wanted to find a good skin that [he] could wrap up in, be safe in. Now they are trying to sell [him] another new one - the radical skin." Amid drunken peers and 60s counterculture, Bobby forms a unique worldview.

Structure: 5 out of 5 stars

Ward sets up the perfect book. Chapters are short, powerful, humorous, and action-packed. While, at the beginning, the reader spends a lot of time wondering what is fiction and what is fact (i.e. was carrying the Taco sculpture a life event or a drug-induced fantasy?), the reader quickly pushes aside logic and just enjoys the tumultuous story.

Character: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bobby is the sole narrator, which works out just fine. The reader doesn't become too attached to anyone else. The protagonist is good company, and he meets a crazy crew. Characters are introduced and then left by the side of the road (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally). However, the reader rarely feels the loss of a new friend or lover because Ward so quickly brings in a new point of interest. Throughout the book, the author will reference a past character and the reader will remember with fond nostalgia about an earlier chapter, but then move forward, the same way the protagonist does. In this way, the story still feels whole.

My only wish was to hear more about Bobby's father in the book's conclusion. The author draws such powerful father-to-son parallels in the beginning, but then only touches on those points at the end. The reader walks away satisfied, but would have enjoyed an ending tie.

Voice: 5 out of 5 stars

The protagonist is a sensational storyteller. He is witty, charming, and mostly a nerd. From grade school onward, Bobby encounters influential people who he has determined are geniuses and therefore hold all of life's secrets. When they disappoint him, he moves on. The narrator is never dishonest and often overanalyzes situations in a way that is both endearing and a comfort.

Shedding Skin is simultaneously laugh out loud entertaining and historically intriguing. The reader watches a boy find his own two feet without any stereotypical YA drama. In fact, the novel is anything but predictable. Overall, a delightful read.

The book was published in 1972 by Harper & Row, and won the National Endowment for the Arts award in the same year.

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