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Skunk: A Love Story
Justin Courter
Omnidawn Publishing, 352 pages

Skunk: A Love Story
Justin Courter
Justin Courter's short stories and poems have been published in The Berkeley Fiction Review, Fugue, Many Mountains Moving, Fourteen Hills, The Literary Review, New Orleans Review, LIT, Northwest Review, Pleiades, Main Street Rag, Phantasmagoria, Apalachee Review, North Dakota Review, Pearl and other journals. Skunk: A Love Story is his first published novel. He lives in New York and works for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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A review by David Soyka

In a way it's too bad that Justin Courter's debut novel is so good: otherwise, I could have said that Skunk stinks. It doesn't.

So don't get put off by the idea of a Casper Milquetoast-type narrator who becomes addicted to skunk musk (the smell reminds him of the beer his alcoholic late mother favored) and finds love (the novel's subtitle is A Love Story) with a brilliant marine biologist who has bioengineered a solution for global warming and just happens to have a fetish of her own for the smell of fish. Odd, yes, but no more so than the oddity of most human attraction. How many times have you heard the expression, "What does she (or he) see in him (or her)?" In depicting two hygienically-challenged characters who, beyond sharing the status of outcasts, have polar opposite personalities, Courter depicts the elements in the chemistry of love by focusing on somewhat more unusual particles.

Here, for example, is how our thirty-year-old misanthropic low-esteemed odiferous virgin hero, Damien Youngquist (great name, resonating the character's personality on multiple levels) describes his state-of-mind following his deflowering by the lusty and equally overly-scented Pearl:

For the next couple of days I was a bit disoriented and continued to have trouble concentrating on my work. I wondered if I were in love, then told myself, nonsense -- far too early for such a drastic diagnosis. I'd spent only a few hours in Pearl's company and might never see her again. Or, worse, I could see her in the supermarket and she might ignore me. There was also the possibility that, being the damned fool I was, I would get nervous and try to ignore her. So, put it out of your mind, I said to myself -- just carry on, carry on! But it was no use. I found myself at my desk, gazing out the window, oblivious to the work in from of me, twiddling a pen in my fingers, daydreaming about Pearl. I wondered what she was doing at the moment; I thought about her past more than I thought about my own. I imagined her as a little girl, with a wild head of curly brown hair, telling her mother to be quiet because she had to work the next day.
pgs. 60 -61
This being a love story, there are, of course, misunderstandings and a parting of ways, as well as a tragedy that befalls Damien before true love can wend its way towards a sort of "happily-ever-after." Courter, however, is no simple romanticist. Love is not always a bed of roses that smells so sweet even between two people who don't. Damien may have met his soul mate, but someone who has lived alone as long as he has troubles adjusting to someone else inhabiting his space. And, sure, it's easy for him to relate to someone who has an odor fetish -- indeed, the smell of sardines becomes an aphrodisiac for him -- but the fish heads in the tub do attract flies, and that can be a bit annoying. And then there's the question of whether he can be as emphatic with the biological consequence of human lust as he can with his own pet skunks that have for so long substituted for human companionship.

This is also a bildungsroman in which the hapless protagonist learns to fend for himself. Courter pulls off the difficult trick of making a character of unpleasant habits quite sympathetic, setting the tone from the opening lines:

Only three years ago did I finally decide to get a skunk of my own. This was after a long, tentative courtship of the skunk scent. If I were driving on a country road and smelled skunk, I immediately pulled over and sat, sometimes for hours, with all the windows rolled down, breathing deeply and letting my thoughts drift among whatever daydreams the scent inspired. I often packed a lunch and devoted my Sunday to one of these drives. But I longed for the pleasure of enjoying the scent of the skunk entirely at my leisure.
p. 15
Unfortunately, in "normal" society, people don't much tolerate those who smell as if they actually experienced Loudon Wainwright III's song about an unfortunate driving encounter with a polecat. Even those who work from home. The neighbors complain, and sometimes they do things that have unfortunate consequences. All of which lead Damien to go "off the grid" as a self-substinance farmer, a seemingly improbable task for which he finds himself, with a little help from a good natured general storekeeper, remarkably suited. Alas, farmers of a different sort of crop who are surreptitiously tapping into his skunk musk supply portend dire consequences, as does Damien's continuing reliance on his seemingly harmless, if highly olfactorily offensive, habit.

The first three chapter of this novel first appeared in the Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction -- Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories. If you're not familiar with this collection, the name alone tells you this is yet another attempt at classifying work that might ordinarily end up on the science fiction and fantasy shelves as something more "literary." While Skunk has science fictional elements (Pearl's bio-tech invention) and the odd smelling premise is fantastical, these are largely beside the point. In all probability, you'll find this book under general fiction, right next to stuff like A Confederacy of Dunces and A Midsummer's Night Dream. But if perchance your local bookseller doesn't have it there, I strongly urge you to sniff it out.

Copyright © 2007 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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