Street illegal: ‘Skids’ reviewed in The Globe and Mail

“Street illegal” JIM BARTLEY, The Globe and Mail

When we think of detox, we think of celebs breaking a pill or coke habit, or of an ordinary drunk desperate to not lose wife and kids. In the first story of this impressive debut collection, Cathleen With introduces a keener sense of waste… Jesse is 16 and a street kid, or “skid” in the unofficial parlance of social work. After a bona fide suicide attempt, she’s being weaned off not only drugs, but the selling of her body to pay for them.

In the dry-out, she takes a shine to a new resident, Phoebe, and soon her regular “brain voyages” — escapist fantasies to a tropical paradise — are filled with romance, culminating in an idyllic birth scene on a balmy beach, with Phoebe as tender midwife.

In Angel’s House of Ice, crystal meth is the fuel that keeps Kevin perilously aloft as he turns queer tricks in Vancouver. He does mostly high-end tourist trade. Kevin’s other sustaining drug is Daniel, his native boyfriend. Heading for druggy burnout, the boys have no incentive to slow down. “The cash flow is too good.” Every bad patch has a crystal promise around the corner.

In The Arbutus Tree, Jesse and her best friend in foster care, Ali, obliquely acknowledge an erotic attraction to each other even as they exhibit both fascination and disgust over gay men having sex in a beach-front park. They’re in that teen middle-land of burgeoning hormones and minds addled by the body’s surging needs.
Later, on the beach, they flirt with some callous older boys who mercilessly take what’s been offered. It’s rape, but the girls know it must never be spoken of. They huddle in bed later, holding each other, fearing that their cop foster dad will force a confession. But Jesse is secretly musing on the gay encounter they witnessed. We’re left with a sadness tempered by budding love.

Drive Uncle Randy is a road story ripe for a film deal (think Gus van Sant or David Lynch). The hands-down standout of the book, it splays wide the secrets of a family plagued by desperate addictions ranging from beer to heroin to ranting religious fervour. Pubescent Anja has been kidnapped from her Vancouver trailer home by her mom’s lover, who’s also her uncle. Randy is a sexual predator on a lunatic mission to bring his lost brother (Anja’s dad) back into the fold of Yahweh. His tool of spiritual coercion is the shotgun in the back seat.

Anja is our tale-teller, her numbed, dully incredulous voice perfectly matched to the nightmare of her days on the road (she’s obliged to cook hits of smack in the car and shoot up gibbering Randy while he drives.) and her nights in shared motel beds. This tale is horrifying and mesmerizing. It surges ahead on the surreal leaps and illogic of dreams, all carried within a larger, neatly crafted narrative arc.

The stories are loosely linked by setting and some characters, which helps to underscore the anarchic drift of lives in this community of the dispossessed. We lose characters, then find them again, usually no better off — but more familiar, and more worth knowing.

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