West of Lovelorn
By St. John Karp
Remora House, 2017
It’s refreshing for me, a lover of the absurd, to find a new novel by St. John Karp. His debut, the middle-grade adventure Radium Baby, featured precocious children competing in a global contest to find the heir of the Pepperpots, famous husband and wife scientists who gave up their child thirteen years ago. The novel’s message—that an experience is more important than winning attention or prizes—is vital, no matter how old the reader. With Skunks Dance, Karp wades into the murky YA market, filled with books that both high school and graduate students adore, and where treacle like, “My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations,” is the very substance of life.
Karp doesn’t write treacle. It likely gives him hives. Nor does he invest insufferable perspicacity into characters who just got their driver’s license. What he offers instead feels like pan-sifted treasure from a genuine teen mind. In Skunks Dance—the novel and the small California town—seventeen-year-olds Jet Allan-Ashwood and Amanda Spillane have cultivated a rivalry that might be nightmarish if it weren’t so rip-roaringly juvenile. She chucks a rock—wrapped in a doily—through his family’s kitchen window. He’d like to “take her soul and crush it like a soda can.” They’re forced to team up, however, when the hunt for Spivey Spillane’s lost gold becomes a matter of life or death.
Spivey is Amanda’s ancestor from the Gold Rush Era. Chapters starring the twenty-year-old rapscallion alternate with those set in the present day, and begin in Kansas’ Gravesend Saloon. He’s chasing an even worse rapscallion named Alabama Sam, who’s absconded with an annotated Bible from a traveler who died on the Spillane farm back in Tennessee. Using prose that is both evocative and economic, Karp lures us into the mystery’s shadowed gulch:
The defaced Bible sent shivers through Spivey’s old mother and she demanded the unholy object be burned. He promised he would. But Spivey kept it. On some pages, where the chapter endings left enough space, the dead man had scribbled thousands of words of his own device. Sometimes these had diagrams of strange machines, fabulous treasures, or maps of hills and coastlines that Spivey didn’t recognize. There was something about it he couldn’t put his finger on. He pored over the maps by candlelight for hours on end, tracing his fingers over the spidery outlines and trying to make sense of the alien topography. These maps led to something important. He knew it. Spivey couldn’t let them be destroyed.
Each timeline is its own series of nested matryoshka dolls, with clever moments hatching still more clever moments of increasingly fine craftsmanship. On Alabama Sam’s tail, Spivey learns that his quarry sheds aliases like dandruff: George Washington Dickey, Clancy Wellwater, Jebediah Balthrop. Eventually reaching the clapboard eden of Skunks Dance, he hears that Sam has already started impersonating him. Spivey has, apparently, advertised his appearance in a one-man-show called Heliogabalus’ Pursuit of the Sugar Plum Faeries (A Study in Lavender).
In present day Skunks Dance, longtime YA (and middle-grade) fans will recognize further components of an anything-can-happen narrative, including the calamitous twelfth birthday of Jet’s sister Gina, his business of buying and selling rare comic books, and his circus acrobat parents. They’re known as the Amazing Allan and Ashwood, and life with them is a heaping lasagna of weird:
If it weren’t summer, Jet would never have found his mother until mid-afternoon, when she would surface from underneath the sofa or inside the utility closet. As it was she had been up early to take advantage of what she insisted were the prime trampolining hours between 5 and 7 a.m. Jet should have been used to the noises after all these years, but he was always startled awake by his mom’s breathing exercises, the rusty springs on the trampoline, and her boisterous rendition of “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”
Altogether, the happenings in this desert town are a touch west of lovelorn. We may root for Jet and Amanda to fall for each other, but that outcome must be the byproduct of a satisfyingly odd yarn. Karp often mocks the idea that teens suffer existence in search of idealized love. When Jet’s mother suggests that he frolic with hormonal abandon, the author wraps dozens of pretentiously dour YA novels (Eleanor and Park, Looking for Alaska, etc) in confectionary silliness:
“Play hookey! You could go to the penny arcade. You never know, you might meet a pretty punk girl with purple hair,” she said. “Or a boy…”
“Mom, for the millionth time, I’m not gay.”
“I’m not saying you have to put up a big poster of Justin Bieber, but a little experimentation never hurt anyone. It’s good for the soul. I remember when I was in high school there was this blond cheerleader who had the most amazing rack.”
“Mom! Stop being gross.”
The bulk of Jet and Amanda’s adventures are the shenanigans of bumbling virgins. She steals from the Allan-Ashwood stoop a $400 copy of Fantastic Firecat #1 (1943) that he’s ordered. Later, when Jet and some friends sneak into the high school to burgle fireworks set aside for Fourth of July, they find Amanda’s Volkswagen in the parking garage. They aim the mini-rockets in vengeance, the windshield shatters, and the whole lemon goes up in flames. As it happens, the comic book is in the car.
Perhaps Skunks Dance mirrors teens too closely. The novel is filthy, fractious, and gonzo—elements that need to burn themselves out before heart and maturity can emerge. Jet and Amanda’s antics continue, often stealing the show from Spivey. Not that there isn’t lunacy enough in the Old West, once our hero teams up with his landlord, Aurelio Nunes, who convinces him that the only way to outsmart Alabama Sam is to embrace the taunting. Spivey dons a pink tutu for his one-man-show—but he also befriends Jackie Hyde, gun store owner, for insurance. Nevertheless, Sam pulls a haunting stunt that not only tips the game in his favor, but stains the Old West thread a darker color than others in the book. Karp leans into the tonal change, delighting us with a hallucinogenic dream sequence in which Spivey
felt a tickle in his throat. He reached his fingers down as far as they would go until he felt something brush against his fingertips. He tried to grasp it and pull it out. When he looked down, he found brown, brittle fragments in his hand, like the legs of an insect. Something had crawled down his throat and died. Now its brittle little insect body was stuck in his esophagus.
He tried to yank it out again but only came away with more broken-off legs. The more he pulled, the less there was to hold onto, and he was only forcing the thing further and further down. He could feel it brushing against his Adam’s apple, feel the hairy legs and bits of wing sticking into his gullet. The lump was huge now.
And that was when he felt it twitch. It was still alive.
Karp’s timelines initially converge on the headless statue that present day Skunks Dance has erected in honor of Spivey Spillane—reflecting the final condition of his body. Then Jet gets his hands on the scribbled-in Spillane Bible, his eyes glowing with delusions of wealth. Despite Amanda’s assurance that the book is fake, one of many counterfeits, he and Gina follow its guidance to the nearby Calaveras Ridge, to the ruins of a Spanish fort. And from there? Well, Skunks Dance isn’t going to get any less crazy until the hidden corpse and upper echelon conspirators are discovered.
Yet the two endings—for Jet and Amanda, for Spivey, Sam, and Jackie—are heart-meltingly great. The pulsing wackiness of the characters, of the town itself, slows as the finales approach. Heroism believably comes into play against greed, and another graceful tonal pivot assures readers that the stakes are real.
Skunks Dance stars teenagers, but I’m not convinced it’s for them. Karp is a nerd after my own heart, with soft spots for pigtails and superheroes. He’s delivered an emotionally-resonant dollop of day-glow Americana without relying on the cliches that YA books—and too often reality—insist kids live by: smoking, drinking, and navel gazing. Has Karp has written the book he wanted to read? Surely. Are there any teens in the audience not racing toward adulthood? If so, they’d be the treasure to find.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.