ADVENTURES IN THE SKIN TRADE AND OTHER STORIES

Dylan Thomas
New York: New Directions, 1955 from 1938 original
273 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2006

Dreamy subjective fantasy worlds are overlaid on real situations. While Thomas’s vehicle is the short story, he is never far from the poetic. The stories are filled with symbols and descriptions which are often fairly esoteric and allusions to other literary works abound.

Often little that is dramatic has actually happened, but the inner world of the character suggests wild things. At other times, as in the crucifixion in The Tree I wasn’t sure what events actually happened in the external world and what only in the mind of the character.

The stories seem to be those of a young man obsessed with sex, terrified of it, wanting to break away from the attitudes and traditions of his time, but not succeeding very well. He retreats into dream worlds where things are somewhat better, but there is still a disturbing amount of violence against women and an association with women who are comfortable with sex as being either witches or closely allied with Satan.

The first story of the book, the title story, Adventures in the Skin Trade is different. It is the only story in which there is lots of silliness and humor, a wild fantasy of a passive young man.

Young Sam Bennet is getting ready to leave his family home in rural England and go to London seeking…. well, that’s part of the rub. What is it he is seeking? On the eve of his departure he destroys numerous things in his parents’ home, and slips out in the morning before they notice.

Ostensibly he was to seek work in newspapers, but on the train he destroys the list of all his contacts, saving only one which is not of a newspaper person, but a woman reputed to be of loose morals, Lucille Harris. She becomes sort of his search for the Holy Grail, and like the legends of yore, he never finds her.

But he does find Mr. Allingham at a restaurant/bar at the rail station. Allingham questions him about his plans and where he is headed. Sam doesn’t know and is happy he doesn’t know. He sees the world as meaningless and just intends to let things happen to him passively, never planning or knowing where he’s headed.

Allingham can’t deal with that and tells Sam

Look here,” the man said, controlling his voice, there’s sense in everything. There’s bound to be. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to carry on, would we? Everybody knows where he’s going, especially if he’s come by train, otherwise he wouldn’t move from where he took the train from, that’s elementary.”

Later he adds:

Let’s get the first thing straight. People who have come must go. People must know where they’re going, otherwise the world could not be conducted on a sane basis. The streets would be full of people just wandering about, wouldn’t they? Wandering about and having useless arguments with people who know where they’re going.

I was very struck in this section to similarities to this theme which comes up later in 20th century literature in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.

The characters in those plays are more concerned with the meaning of life, but Sam’s hunting for where to go is a closely related theme.

Sam is more in total despair, even more than Jerry in The Zoo Story. Jerry goes to Central Park to try to find someone to make “contact” with. Sam, however, seems even more pessimistic and decided: He says: “…here I am and I don’t know where to go. I don’t want to know where to go.”

But Allingham leads him out of the station pub with a Bass beer bottle stuck on his finger, and to Allingham’s home/furniture shop. The scene in the bar when Sam gets his beer bottle stuck on his finger was some sign of strange goings on, but nothing matches Allingham’s crazy place with furniture stacked upon furniture to the ceiling, where one has to crawl in as one might a low cave. One realizes one is in for a mad cap story.

Next they are of To Mrs. Dacey’s restaurant and there her daughter, Polly, gets Sam drunk on eau de cologne and leaves him naked in a bath tub.

Soon a strange group is off to visit numerous clubs or taverns. Where they are is not where things are happening. “I think things must be happening everywhere except where one is.”

When the group arrives at their first tavern Allingham expresses what seems to be recognized by all: “…people are all mad in the world. They don’t know where they are going, they don’t know why they’re where they are, all they want is love and beer and sleep.” The group adds to the list of aims: music, dancing and sex, sex, sex.

Along the way there is much great writing by the poet in Dylan Thomas. I was especially delighted with a description of dancers at one of the clubs:

And the dancing cannibal mouthed black razor kings shaking their women’s breasts and blood to the stutter of the drums, snakily tailored in the shabby sweat smelling jungle under the wet pavement. And a crimped boy danced like a girl, and the two girls serving were as harsh as men.

That passage reminds me a great deal of the poetry of Vachel Lindsay. But Sam recognizes that people are not being themselves in this abandon: “This is all pretending.” And he is still convinced there is no hope or meaning.

I guess what I like best about the story is that it is just a glimpse of Sam’s life and ends with no resolution at all. It’s as though we find the first chapter of a destroyed novel and after chapter one has set the problematic the chapter ended and the rest of the book is missing.

It is a wonderful comic romp of near madness and dreaminess. I especially loved it that the story ended with Sam still having the Bass beer bottle stuck on his finger!

A second story of special interest to me was The Mouse and the Woman. I found it to be intriguing, enchanting, moving and very difficult. A mad man in an asylum has killed the woman of his dream. But, he’s not sure if he killed her or what her state was. At one point he accepts that to really investigate her status he must enter into his dream. “He could no longer listen to the speaking of reason.” Once he let’s go he faces and realizes that she was: “A being had been born not out of the womb, but out of the soul and the spinning head.” I think the “spinning” of this head is important to Thomas. Only in that ecstasy of such spinning and creating will the important realities arise.

Eventually, however, he cannot accept his own dream which includes the woman he’s created in her naked glory. She wants to know why he has covered her and cannot look upon her nakedness which he has so vehemently celebrated. He can only repeat that it is not good to do so. But in this act of denying nature itself, he has killed the woman, and nothing is left but for he himself to die.

He knew he had failed before the eye of God and the eye of Sirius to hold his miracle. The woman had shown him that it was wonderful to live. And now, when at least he knew how wonderful, and how pleasant the blood in the trees, and how deep the well of the clouds, he must close his eyes and die.

However, it is only him and his dream that die. As he does this Thomas announces that it is now spring and life is once again being born elsewhere.

All in all, I enjoyed about ˝ the book, and was either mystified or bored by the other ˝. I tend like his poetry better.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu