- The Tombstone Race by José Skinner
José Skinner’s most recent collection of fourteen short stories is as varied in culture, class, and character as the state in which they’re set. From Fort Sumner to Taos, Skinner represents the underside of urban development and modern change in places uncharacteristic of New Mexico’s tourist veneer. By carefully balancing an artistic appreciation of the landscape with an awareness of social reality, Skinner presents a thought-provoking collection about a diverse people and place mired in regional development.
The collection’s title, playing on the mythic West, offers a more local reference point in the title story. Set in Fort Sumner, where Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed the outlaw Billy the Kid in 1881, “The Tombstone Race” calls on a local event founded in recent times to commemorate the Kid’s thrice-stolen and repatriated headstone. With signature irony, Skinner negotiates between the state’s tourist image and an insider’s perspective of place, setting most of the story’s action in a local convenience store. The story’s opening line, “This that I’m about to tell happened in the Vietnam Era” (61), indicates the narrator is recalling a memory, long before the Tombstone Race became local tradition in Fort Sumner. In this way, Skinner adapts local custom to a fictional narrative design, inscribing a subtle social commentary on modern warfare, masculinity, and change in a small town whose image rarely changes.
“The Tombstone Race” takes the perspective of a local girl who aids her brother in dodging the draft, despite her mother’s expectations and his obligation as a man. The story is remarkable for its subtle and careful way of revealing a female narrative perspective, which Skinner also adopts in “Looking Out,” a story that shifts back and forth from a conversation between mother and daughter to a narrative unfolding inside the teenaged girl’s head. “Looking Out” begins with a question, “If Jennifer told the story of her life so far, would she tell it as a beautiful dream, or as a nightmare?” (17), a structuring sentiment that sets an ambivalent tone about sexual violation and female sexuality. As the story explains, the mother moves her daughters from “nasty” Chicago “to the fairy-tale town of Santa Fe,” clearly an outsider’s perspective of a city that in reality [End Page 480] has “the state’s highest rates of reported rape” (23). In narrative twists and turns, the story raises the specter of race, rape, and the relationship between Anglos and Chicanos in the City Different, far from the enchanting exterior that lures Jennifer’s mother there in the first place.
“Vigil” offers an interesting contrast to “Looking Out,” the title suggesting a similar theme of vigilance, only in this instance the story is cast from the male perspective of a dishonorably discharged Santa Fe cop, Tony Vigil, who lives at the end of a Santa Fe street boasting his family name. The story returns to the complicated theme of rape and the criminalization of Mexican American youth who, silent in “Looking Out,” gain a questionable voice in the character of Tony, who goes from cop to criminal in the span of eight pages. Much like the other stories, which function like character sketches, Tony has questionable motives, making it difficult to identify with him. This is perhaps the beauty of Skinner’s fiction, as he explores the most common of characters— a gangbanger in “The Edge,” an addict in “My Dealer, In Memoriam,” a conman in “The Extra”— humanizing them in complex ways. Often his most complicated of characters and stories have no resolutions, as in “Crypto” and “Solidarity,” leaving more questions than answers about the people and place of New Mexico in postmodern times.
As a longtime translator for New Mexico courts, Skinner shows his keen eye for ambiguity and narrative perspective, and he lets no one off the hook, from local denizens of small-town New Mexico to state officials and artists. The last story, “The Sand Car,” is...