In her first novel, Skin, Kellie Wells tackles theological questions of eschatological proportions within the complicated web of What Cheer, a small town in Kansas. God peeks through the clouds with ominous and alarming force, knocking men to their knees and demanding nourishment with insatiable hunger. What Cheer’s residents live in a violent, premillennial reality where the only spiritual peace is inside your skin, below the veins and obscured by body tissue.
Wells eschews chronological narrative form, jumping through her characters’ lives with a different kind of arc. Their futures mix with their pasts, creating a chaotic present without a clear protagonist. Instead, a cast of interconnected sinners trapped in various physical, philosophical, and emotional purgatories trades leads. Degrees of pain flirt with pleasure in a way that is just barely tolerable yet undeniably compelling.
The prologue sets the tenor for the body of the novel. Wells begins by describing the intoxicating scent of gardenia hanging in the air. The smell is so powerful it makes her characters forget what the body is reasonably capable of and the language so crisp it makes her readers forget to question rationally impossible plot twists. Within the first two pages Rachel wills herself to shrink, her daughter Ruby dreams of the day she will let her mother relax in the safety of a pocket, and Zero floats into the sky until his body becomes merely a “matter of faith.” Miracles are commonplace, theophany is never ruled out, and penitence is relished. Wells closes the prologue with guilty people ready to be consumed by their creator—“Thin clouds prowl across the sky like cats stalking sparrows, and all the residents of What Cheer who stand in their greening yards, hands reaching toward a trickle of sun, look above to see the sky eddy with the ylem of imminent consequences, kneel beneath the heft of sins they’ve yet to commit.”
Throughout the novel, Wells uses Christian imagery to flirt with existential questions. God feeds us himself in the form of the Eucharist, but who feeds God? What is life? “Who’s to say we are not floaters in God’s eyes, making him a little less lonely behind his dimming vision?” What is heaven? Is it real? Could it be a place where “blood means the same as milk or rain or wine?” In What Cheer, God’s name is Harold and he consumes whatever he chooses, answering these questions with swift blows. Abuse is divinely sanctioned and even envied. Masochism is the path to happiness and divinity. “It’s a balled-up fist you hit yourself with, but you like it that way ’cause the beauty of contusions is that they disappear.”
The world Wells creates is complex. At times the pain is so beautiful it invokes guilt. Wells succeeds in getting the reader to acquiesce to abuse, describing it with language so romantic that only later does reality catch up. She plows through issues that don’t bring joy—domestic abuse, death, and self-mutilation—yet somehow leaves the reader with a smile. The book is not funny, but the prose so pleasurable it lulls the reader into seeing God in every bit of pain and loving him anyway. Wells manages to weave layers of storyline into each other from generations past and present without faltering, and she makes miracles rational, vigilantly retaining her audience in that heady, intoxicating cloud of What Cheer gardenias.