There are certain writers that have an incredibly distinct voice – you know immediately when you’re reading them. Cormac McCarthy book. DittoToni Morrison, Charles Frazier, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Catherynne M. Valente, and James Ellroy all pop into my mind, as does Charlie Huston. Huston is one of those writers where I’m just really predisposed to dig the stripped down hardboiled style he employs. And, truth be told – I wondered whether Huston’s voice could work in audio.
Skinner marks something of a departure for Huston. It’s his first spy novel, and I appreciate that Huston is pushing himself into different territory and not getting too comfortable writing crime novels. And it’s the kind of contemporary spy/war novel I’d always hoped Ellroy would attempt to write. It’s a fine experiment, grounded with tough guys who could’ve been crooks, mobsters, and PIs, but essentially became C.I.A. operatives instead. Perhaps Sleepless was more of an experiment?
Skinner protects assets, or people. He was the best he was at what he did because he came off as the most brutal. If someone took out Skinner’s asset, Skinner would make sure that person would pay a higher cost – destroying everything his antagonist considered valuable. We aren’t given too many specific details about what this means, but you can fill in the blanks. His antagonists knew people or had families. Skinner made them pay – so much so that the cost he exacted far outweighed whatever they gained from taking out his asset. Probably, Skinner only had to do this a few times to secure his reputation, but it’s a nasty enough backstory. It gets more messed up when you discover that Skinner himself was something of a human guinea pig as a child – his parents kept him in a box (or basement). Finally, an attempt on Skinner’s life by Kestrel – the agency that employs Skinner. It didn’t work, but instead of retaliating, Skinner merely disappeared, and miraculously nobody connected to the attempt was punished.
Years later, after a cyber attack on the U.S. power grid, Skinner is located and brought back by Kestrel. His asset is Jae, a robotocist who can see patterns. She’s trying to save hundreds of thousands of lives in true globe-hopping fashion, they travel to Stockhom and Mumbai, searching for clues, trying to piece the puzzle together before it all blows up. Through it all, we’re wondering who they can trust – and whether or not they can trust each other? Jae in particular worries that Skinner, now brought in from the cold, has already started exacting his bloody revenge.
There’s a lot that I liked about Skinner. It’s very much a novel of our times and has a lot on its mind: WTO protests, corporations given human rights, the plight of the third world, the privilege of the first world, and responsibility. And for a spy novel, I appreciate that it’s maybe more optimistic about humanity (note: not government agencies). I admit I had a hard time keeping up with the book’s breakneck pace at times. It’s easy to get dizzy, but Huston’s prose is strong and easy enough to keep me lifting my hands high in the air as he operates the rollercoaster.
That said, it’s a book that I don’t think will stick with me. I wasn’t sorry to have listened to it, and I thought Jae was well drawn character, but in general – Skinner, like it’s protagonist, seemed happy to keep me at arm’s length, and for a book with such high stakes, I didn’t feel as invested in them as much as I have Huston’s other novels. Maybe that’s part of the point – Skinner is supposed to feel like a not completely functioning member of society.
Up until Skinner, I’d only experienced Huston’s prose on the page, and I was worried how it would translate to audio. Jay Snyder does an admirable job finding the rhythm and beats of Huston’s prose. I enjoyed listening to him, and I won’t hesitate to pick up another of Huston’s books in audio.
Special Thanks to Hatchette Audio for providing me with a review copy of this book.