Monday, May 29th, 2023

Scott Heim’s mesmerizing, unsettling Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin

by Scott Heim

Published by Harpercollins

Published March 1995 (1st ed.)
292 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

May 26, 2003

The movie The Wizard of Oz made Kansas seem the antithesis of danger: dull but safe. Kansas native Scott Heim’s first novel, Mysterious Skin, first published in 1995, does nothing to make Kansas seem more glamorous. It follows I Have the Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore and A Parisian from Kansas in showing Kansas as a place where the would-be fabulous leave in quest of their own not-so-private Ozes, but it surpasses even In Cold Blood in undercutting the image of safety in blandness in the flat lands of Middle America. Reading it, I understood better William Burroughs ending his days there with his gun collection. (If I remember correctly, the killing spree that is the basis for the movie Badlands is supposed to take place in the neighboring state of Nebraska although it was filmed in eastern Colorado.)

Mysterious Skin is a mesmerizing novel about some “generation X” characters growing up in Kansas. Two go east, one goes west, and the other two young characters stay put. The book is not about flight—at least not exile from the Midwest to coastal cities. In a way it’s about repression, but not the kind of small town (Main Street) repression of creativity and/or of nonstandard desire. Rather, it is about the repression of memories of child abuse.

Revealing this is not a plot spoiler, because the second chapter of the book relates Neil’s memories of his “summer of love,” 1981, when he was an eight-year-old Little League star feeling specially chosen by the 40-something pedophile Little League coach. Neil was being neglected by his mother who was preoccupied with her amour of the time. The coach’s attention and perversities (which extended considerably beyond seeking out eight-year-olds!) were welcome to Neil and set a pattern for the prostitution Neil engaged in as an adolescent.

The summer of 1981 was also when Brian thinks (in 1991) that he was abducted and examined by aliens. He forms a relationship with a young woman who is even more convinced that she had been periodically abducted by aliens than Brian is. I’d say that she is emotionally needy, but all the characters in Mysterious Skin are needy with the exception of Brian’s older sister, Deborah, who is a superfluous narrator—though a believable and interesting one.

Heim’s skills as a writer are many, but maintaining suspense is not one of them. Although there is very little question about what is going to be revealed/recalled/relived, the story unfolds through chapters from the points of view of Brian, Neil, Deborah, Wendy (a friend of Neil’s who precedes him moving to New York City), and Eric (a friend of Neil who would like to be more than a friend and who becomes a friend of Brian after Neil moves to New York).

Deborah has no particular plot function either. The women who are important are the single mothers of Brian and Neil. (Eric’s parents were killed in an automobile accident in California, and he is living with his grandparents, who never register as characters.) Neil’s mother, ca. 1991, does not have man in her life and is more available for outings with Brian and Neil than she was with Brian. (Indeed, she seems like a different person altogether, which is a failure of characterization.)

Brian’s mother is a prison guard, NRA member, and keeps many guns around. Although she saw a flying saucer with her then-boyfriend and Brian, she is very skeptical. She does not seem bothered by his apparent asexuality and abhorrence at being touched, or even to notice these aspects of his weirdness.

Heim writes with vivid images and a vocabulary I find hard to believe that all four of his young narrators would command (it’s for us, the readers, not for them, right?). For the most part, the characterization is very deft. (I find Eric the most interesting character. His traumas are more conventional, I guess.) The coach remains a mystery since all the information the reader has are semi-blocked memories from when the eighteen-year-olds were eight-year-olds. I don’t think that this is a problem because he is not a character I want to know or try to sympathize with. His behavior creeps me out even more than it does the book’s characters.

As if prostitution and extremely kinky pedophilia weren’t hard enough to read about, there’s also a very vivid rape. I think Heim was emulating Dennis Cooper (and William Burroughs), trying to shock readers. I think of myself as unshockable, but Heim managed to make me shudder more than once.

Mysterious Skin is a very disturbing book about a very disturbing and all too topical phenomenon. I think that it provides insight into abused children who are confused not only by what trusted adults (priests, etc.) do to/with them but by the silence of those who must know something is going on. Late in the book, Brian exclaims, “It’s amazing what people know. They just never say anything, they deny it because they don’t want to believe.”

An amazing amount of the book with a structure considerably enhancing the suspense of Brian recovering his memory is in Prince’s adaptation for the stage, which we saw at the New Conservatory Theater this week. A pause in the line “He’s going to be…the next big thing” (Brian realizing he doesn’t know who the current big thing in baseball is) enhances its effect, and I find Avalyn more sympathetic in the stage version. Eric is mostly dispensed with to advance the main storyline.

first published by epinions, 26 May 2003
©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.