In one way, Skin contributor Luis Jaramillo’s first collection, The Doctor’s Wife, is like any first collection in that autobiography prevails, if autobiography could be said to extend to a multigenerational saga in which the writer appears only intermittently as the storyteller in the last half of the book, and if the book as a whole must be taken, not by its plot, characters in a particular milieu, remarkable empathy, or style, but as the announcement of a significant, even major, new contemporary writer. Essentially, the effect of reading any great book is the reader’s accumulated experience of the writer’s individual artistic conception, from narrative to moral compass to arrangement, and Jaramillo’s vision is that total. Not only does it carry readers along with sympathetic characters and storytelling panache, but from each sentence trailing up to each theme, it does so with consistent ethos and style. Wry and realistic, somehow both dapper and feminine, fictional and nonfictional details in each story gather around the characters to create a portrait of the Doctor’s Wife, her family, and even their community with exactly Jaramillo’s vision. From the middle of the third story in the collection, “The Sewer”:
The doorbell rings. The Doctor’s Wife slips on her left pump as she hop skips down the stairs. Hazel Adelsheim is at the door, here to take care of the kids. She’s a blowsy sort of woman, scattered. Her husband is a real bastard.
And the end of the story:
She [the Doctor’s Wife] can feel the Doctor’s ribs through his blazer as they dance on the small dance floor set up by the windows overlooking the fairway. The Doctor’s Wife tells herself that the kids are getting ready for bed.
(They are not. They have not even brushed their teeth or washed their faces. They are playing a rambunctious game with Hazel—a grownup—chasing each other through a burrow built of sofa pillows, blankets, and overturned chairs.)
These passages display the hallmarks of Jaramillo’s style: crisp detail, clear-sighted judgment, and a turn at or near the end of a sentence, passage, or exchange of dialogue casting an ironic or epigrammatic shade to its subject. The resulting dimension is why, though some stories are only one sentence long and most of them hover around two pages more or less, each contains enough depth to feel complete. From later in the book, here is “Bond Issue III” in its entirety:
People try to sell their homes and they can’t. Who wants to buy a house with a bad septic tank? Who wants to buy a house fronting a dirty lake? Nobody wants to change until it hurts more to stay the same.
Most gratifying on an immediate level is that the title of a story often changes meaning in a significant way by the end of the story, but what happens on the smallest level in any great book also happens on the thematic and global levels, so that the above passages not only continue to color sentences, titles, and characters previously introduced, but also reflect the book’s themes about family history in general. Too many examples would be considered to need spoiler alerts, but a passage from “Memory,” wherein the narrator engages both with the Doctor’s Wife (the narrator’s grandmother) and her daughter Petrea, displays Jaramillo on the small and larger scales:
“What else do you remember?” I ask Petrea.
“Once, Mom and John were away at Children’s Hospital for a couple of months. We’d go up on Saturdays and wave from the parking lot because healthy kids weren’t allowed in the hospital.”
“Months?” my grandmother asks. “No, I don’t think so. One time we had to go up for a few days. It may have just felt like months. What I do remember is that we were supposed to have guests that weekend.”
“Who were they?”
“Some friends of your grandfather. I didn’t give a hoot what happened to them.”
The Doctor’s Wife is the next book of genius you should read. Look for Jaramillo’s story “Forgiveness Beach” (introducing new characters not in The Doctor’s Wife) in The Chattahoochee Review’s current double issue with a focus on Skin.