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John Hawkes: Second Skin

Skipper, the narrator of this novel, is a man who has seen death but has difficulty, at least in his old life, in embracing life or, at least, sexual life. In his new life, where he is writing his memoirs, he is living on an idyllic island and inseminating Kate the conventional way and cows, artificially. But, in his old life, he lost three family members to suicide – his father, his daughter and his wife -, one to murder – his son-in-law -, and his mother disappeared. In some respects, he may be seen as the conventional Greek/Shakespearean hero. His wife was called Gertrude (Hamlet’s wife), his daughter, Cassandra, a voice crying in the wilderness. Cassandra, her daughter, Pixie, and Skipper live with Miranda (daughter of Prospero in The Tempest). Like Ulysses he has now found his idyllic, wandering island, tempted by Kate. Much of the”old part” of the novel takes place as Cassandra, Pixie and Skipper, soon after Gertrude’s death, take the bus to New England (cold New England) and live with Miranda. Skipper is very well aware of Miranda’s sexuality but Miranda shows no affection for him, only for Cassandra. Worse still, Skipper has incestuous feelings towards his own daughter but, at the same time, struggles to protect her from sexual predators. When she finally does have a sexual experience, he inadvertently causes her death. In short, his past life, with all of its violence, has finally led to his own daughter’s death. However, unusually for Hawkes, there is redemption – on his hot island with Kate. For once, life seems to triumph over death.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by New Directions