After buying this at the Brooklyn Book Fest oh so many months ago I listened to the Bat Segundo podcast with Alan De Niro and fell a little bit in love. After reading Skinny Dipping a few times, it’s official. Though short story collections always seem to disappoint me because I read them too fast and complain that all the stories are the same, that didn’t stop me from doing exactly that with this book. Luckily, this collection is many-sided and holds together perfectly- the book heaves and sighs with few dull patches and each story is great individually. Like another Small Beer Press short story collection (you know which one I am talking about), it does perfectly what it should do, showcasing the writer’s talents and themes without boring me to death.
The book opens with a story that was hard for me to like at first, “Our Byzantium,” but after a few readings this story of an almost-relationship really delivered. All of the emotional dynamics of almost-sex and almost-friendship are captured in the midst of a violent invasion of a college town by soldiers from the past. Somehow both elements fit perfectly and show how even an almost-relationship can sometimes wreak a more devastating change than one with a beginning and an end and also how friendly acquaintances can turn into personal saviors.
The title story had a George Saunders-ish feel that I enjoyed but didn’t hit me quite as hard as some of the others. It also includes footnotes.
“The Caliber” tackles high school and groping government fingers. After Shelby’s millionaire hating, cultist uncle is moved up on the FBI’s most wanted list, a black suited agent appears in her life. I love how De Niro introduces the feeling that Shelby wouldn’t have been socially successful even without this shadow and that her former invisibility needled her without playing on well-worn high school stereotypes. No angst here, just the real deal. “The fall stumbled on. An extra layer of coolness and distance fell on her. I am a disaffected character she wrote on the second stall in the ladies room, right below the toilet paper dispenser. Two weeks later, her words had been scratched out with Who has a big dick? Who has a big dick?” Exactly.
My favorite story is “Salting the Map” because it feels like it was written especially for me. Office jobs and imaginary lands fight for space in the narrative and I love the absurd crush of the words. “ABTACAS, population 4122. He wet his fingers on his tongue and found the listing for ARGH. Population 310, 210 he scribbled. He decided that ARGH needed a lot of inhabitants.” Is there magic in the supply closet or under the desk of the last cubicle down the hall? I fucking hope so.
This was one of the top three books I read in 2007. Every story had some element, subtly woven into the plot, with no loose thread showing, that obviously required a world of imagining- the newspaper code in “Child Assassin,” the bird merchant’s shop in “Cuttlefish.” War and nationhood as ideas get a lot of play here too, two topics I shy away from. De Niro got me thinking about both and it didn’t even hurt a little.
Buy Skinning Dipping in the Lake of the Dead now.