Skunk: A Love Story feels familiar. One can smell, if you will, a trace of recognition. Our antisocial yet romantic protagonist falls in love, suffers betrayal, adopts a simpler life, and learns a few lessons along the way – all while dealing with substance addition. While these broad events have been tasted before, Skunk does offer something distinctive: Damien Youngquist, an intelligent and socially crippled middle-aged office worker, is addicted to skunk musk.
Though this may initially seem like a forced concept, the absurdity of Damien’s addiction allows the reader to approach the situation with a near-zero level of personal baggage. Damien’s story is one we can relate to, but at the same time is one we can distance ourselves from judgmentally simply due to our ignorance of the specific vice. Unless, of course, you are a musk addict yourself.
Underlying every one of Damien’s motives, and driving the story, is an Oedipal connection to the skunk musk:
“My mother drank quite a lot of beer when I was growing up. She always drank McDougal’s, and imported brand that comes in a green bottle and has a slightly skunky aroma. This was the first scent to greet my nostrils in the morning and the last whiff I sniffed before falling asleep at night. I awoke each morning to the clinking of beer bottles as my mother opened and shut the door of the refrigerator to get out her first McDougal’s before starting my breakfast,” explains Damien on page 24.
Though our narrator denies these connections, the simple acknowledgment is enough to encourage the reader’s close examination of Damien’s every decision. His attraction to a specific type of woman, for example, oozes obsession in the motherly character. Pearl, the constant referent for all of Damien’s Oedipal urges, has her own unique addiction to fish: the smell, the taste, and at times, the lifestyle (in one early scene Pearl convinces Damien to swim with her in a giant aquarium in her garage). This shared love of generally off-putting smells instigates their relationship, but Damien’s attraction to her motherly characteristics is the impetus for their long-lasting bond. Deny it all you want, Damien, but you really are just a lost little boy in need of guidance.
Damien’s love of skunk musk epitomizes his role as the counterpoint to the accepted norm – a position explored consistently throughout Skunk’s entire 347 pages. Where most characters are repulsed by the skunk smell and embrace the traditional goals of a culture – a nice home, a steady job, friends – Damien embraces the stench and dismisses the traditional comforts. Ultimately, after meeting Pearl’s supposed fiancé (a relationship Damien never knew about) he embarks on a Thoreauean escape attempt to rural Highbridge. As he says: “freedom is not to have to smell other people.”
Unfortunately, the Damien Youngquist we know at the beginning of the novel s the same Damien we know at the end of the novel.
Highbridge is where the story really gains momentum. Though Damien experiences and becomes representative of many country bumpkin stereotypes during his journey into uncivilization, author Justin Courter is able to craft believable relationships with these residents that help drive the remaining story. Robby Krauthammer, for example, an anti-consumerism, late-breed hippy who freely expresses his dissatisfaction with the “establishment” – a term he uses liberally but doesn’t quite grasp – is ultimately the keystone to the novel’s courtroom climax. Robby and Damien’s relationship is an interesting one of constant tension.
Unfortunately, the Damien Youngquist we know at the beginning of the novel s the same Damien we know at the end of the novel. His attempts to be truly alone and self-sustaining are continually interrupted, and the reader is left believing that if Damien were ever to achieve a life of pure solitude then he would be truly happy.
But we never know for sure. Here is a Damien at his happiest. This is the Damien we want to love, but this is not the Damien we’re left with.
This lack of character change, however, doesn’t belie the fact that Skunk: A Love Story is a worthy read. While Skunk may not be a high-concept novel, it is the concept that pulls us through. A strange addiction guarantees a strange man with a strange story.