New Mexico is fertile literary soil for José Skinner’s second story collection, “The Tombstone Race.” The 14 stories explore society through the lens of ethnicity, class, friendship, family conflict and generational friction.
Believable, quirky characters, young and old, inhabit the stories.
They’re trying to cope with untenable situations or unmanageable relationships, much as real people do. That makes for mostly engrossing, sometimes funny, meandering reads.
Skinner sets the tales in different cities and towns in the Land of Enchantment. Brief geographical descriptions and Spanish phrases give local color.
The opening story, “The Edge,” is set in Taos. Young Osvaldo might be facing criminal charges over the disappearance of his friend Leroy near the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge. Did Leroy come between Osvaldo and a girl? Did a jealous Osvaldo push Leroy over the edge? The story takes an unanticipated turn when Osvaldo meets a teacher.
In the story “The Extra,” Dwayne Brock is the last convict paroled from Old Main, the nickname of the former State Penitentiary outside Santa Fe. Alas, his single day of freedom is too much for Brock to handle.
In the concluding plot development, Dwayne is back inside the prison walls, but he winds up with a paid caretaker job when the pen becomes a movie set.
In “No Moo Goo,” the unnamed protagonist is reluctantly home in Clovis after finishing a year at New Mexico State University. His father insists his son return to help clean the family-owned Mexican café before a food inspector shows up.
That inspector gives a thumbs down to the live chickens and the roach under the fridge. The family members go out for a meal at a local Asian restaurant.
They want to see what the competition is up to. The son has some menu suggestions (“Moo Goo?”) to regain his family’s cafe’s lost business. The son also shows off his book smarts, and he wonders what life holds for him.
The title story is set in Fort Sumner during the Vietnam War. At first, Young Alex says he’s joining the army. After Alex starts hanging out with the owner of Billy’s Bar (named for Billy the Kid) and a motorcyclist, Alex changes his mind about being inducted. His patriotic mother is crestfallen. His sister is happy.
Alex flees to Canada. But the story returns to Billy’s Bar in a bizarre, inexplicable redirection. The story title, “The Tombstone Race,” refers to the town’s annual run; participants carry fake headstones on their backs. The story reveals another long detour.
Skinner’s first collection, set in the Southwest, was “Flight and Other Stories.” An Austin, Texas, resident, he’s a native of Puerto Rico, was raised in Mexico City, and lived in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces.