Wrong Choices: On Woody Haut’s “Skin Flick”
By Gabriel HartDecember 18, 2022
Skin Flick by Woody Haut
The era-spanning novel begins innocently enough in the 1960s, and while Pasadena isn’t exactly known for its mean streets, Haut’s depiction of Billy’s wayward youth is a searing example of guilt by association. Billy is the mildest of his group of idle-handed teens, establishing himself as “more an observer rather than participant” in the “horseplay” of Dirk, Shane, and Theo, a group convinced after one beer apiece that “they were drunk enough to take on the whole world.” For his part, Billy is hot for Cassie, their gorgeous tomboy tagalong. “I made sure I was at her side, brushing against her whenever possible.” While a clumsy attempt at courtship, it saves him from being swept into the undertow of the other boys’ escalations, culminating when they beat a homeless man to death, assuming he’s a murderer the cops are after. Billy and Cassie are witnesses to the killing, and they leave the scene with vivid images that will haunt them for the next decade. The incident prompts the friends to disband, purposely losing touch to assure the crime’s secrecy.
Billy remains the most rattled of the group. Though he wasn’t directly involved in the killing, his culpability is an intrusive thought he can’t stop entertaining. Seven years later, when he learns that Cassie has moved away and is now engaged to a doctor, he’s reluctantly affected further, and his feelings for her are inconveniently rekindled, intertwined with the compulsion to discuss the murder they witnessed together. So, he begins to stalk her: discovering that she works as a bank teller, he poses as a customer. One thing leads to another, and the two finally consummate their stillborn nostalgia. Billy seals his fate further: “If there’s anything I can ever do for you, all you have to do is ask. […] Like, you know, if things don’t work out with the doctor […] all you have to do is ask, no strings attached” — a classic foreshadowing that leaves us hanging until, 18 years later, Billy hears a knock on his door. It’s Cassie, who has now stalked him, requesting a cumbersome favor with multiple inconvenient reveals: her daughter Terry is missing, she wants Billy (an investigative reporter) to help her find the girl, and Terry happens to be Billy’s daughter, too.
Victimized by time and circumstance, Billy is compelled to take Cassie’s word that he impregnated her that fateful night 18 years before. He must also come to terms with the fact that she then married — and is now estranged from — one of their old homicidal friends, Theo, who is the prime suspect in Terry’s disappearance. Cassie tells Billy: “[W]hen Terry was around fourteen, I had this feeling he was messing around with her. […] I came to the conclusion he has two sides to him.” Billy makes the trek to confront Theo, whom he finds lounging like the Dude in Venice Beach, “reek[ing] of marijuana, sour milk, and cheap wine”: characteristics that make him the most repellent of free spirits. When Billy challenges his morality, Theo accuses him of harboring “bourgeois values, man.”
White-knuckling his professionalism, Billy knows he must show restraint if he’s going to get any further intel out of Theo about Terry’s whereabouts. “I needed answers. I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to get them, including kicking the shit out of Theo.” But when Billy returns, he can’t make it past the police tape: Theo has been murdered, his death “a tipping point after which there was no place else to go except down into my own personal inferno.”
Theo’s death, we discover, is likely linked to the murder he and the rest of Billy’s cohort committed over 25 years before. Is Billy the next to suffer? He proceeds to track down Dirk and Shane, the other erstwhile teenage punks who are now a corrupt preacher and dirty cop, respectively. Unrepentantly drunk on their own power, they use the brief reunions to send Billy into further delirious speculation, confused how he fits into the aftermath of their long-ago crime, while also distracting him from finding Terry, whom he is now all but convinced is really his daughter.
Billy responds to this whirlwind by becoming, virtually overnight, an alcoholic, drug addict, and sex fiend. While this crucial turning point in the story is intended to reveal Billy’s complexity, it simply checks all the scumbag boxes without actually convincing us, especially since his overanalytical journalist tone remains unchanged, leaving him far too aware of what he is doing.
In a recent article for the UK blog Crime Time, Haut wrote about his 12-year process writing Skin Flick:
When I began the novel I remember being engrossed in certain purveyors of self-abasement, such as Dan Fante and Jerry Stahl. There was, and remains, something appealing about such writers with their first-person narratives, and no perceivable limit to the depths they are willing to descend. Which has to do with their honesty, sense of humour and perspective, the latter of which sometimes manifests itself as having no perspective at all. Of course, who, other than the writers themselves, can say with any exactitude that what they write might be nothing more than a masquerade. In any case, there is that side to Skin Flick’s mock confessional […]
It’s a strange goal, aiming to report from the depths of debauchery, and Haut’s depiction of Billy’s transgressions appear not just out of place but out of character. Billy’s downfall is more fluttering than plummeting, as he lands in the beds of cross-dressers and sailors who make him question his sexuality or if “we did anything at all.” And when he leaves a bar with a “fifty-year old floozy, with gargantuan breasts, who reeked of cheap perfume and dime-store make-up,” it’s unclear whether it’s Billy or the author who is confused about the decade they’re in. Not to say such fringe characters don’t exist today, but the language Haut uses to describe them at times feels mired in the pulp-noir past.
Billy continues his self-destructive tourism without ever feeling part of its attractions. His maybe-daughter Terry is still gone, but what’s truly missing is a commentary on cognitive dissonance, the essential component of chemical dependence and sexual deviancy. Authors like Jim Thompson and David Goodis, whom Haut cites as inspiration, have depicted this liminal experience of chasing the ever-vanishing thrill with more conviction and authority.
We know it’s not essential for a mystery to resolve itself. In fact, some would argue that a mystery only works when it remains mysterious. When Billy finally finds Terry living in a desert shack, barely unscathed from her scrape with an underage porn network, it’s here that we also discover the enigma of the novel’s title. Yet Haut chooses to leave every other loose thread maddeningly frayed, and since he’s also an accomplished nonfiction author, this perhaps feels more like real life, where only so much gets cinched up at the end of it all:
As far as I was concerned, it was mission accomplished. Make that partly accomplished, because, even though I’d managed to find Terry, there were still pieces missing from the puzzle. No matter that some of those pieces seemed peripheral — they still mattered, now more than ever, their edges sharp enough to cut right through the cause and effect of it all, from that night in the alleyway all those years ago to every nightmare that had taken place since. Those shards festering like a cancer beneath my skin, impossible to get at without tearing myself apart — cutting deep, cutting loose, taking me where I no doubt was always meant to go.
Luckily for us readers, Haut finally injects that true-blue noir poetry of psychosis into his prose in the closing pages, in teetering italics, just when we thought we had figured Billy out. Clasping the disintegrating fever dream of negative nostalgia, Billy has become a shadow of a man trying to pinpoint where it all went wrong before he surrenders to fatigued acceptance:
I remember the white lines like a cocaine blizzard that wouldn’t let go […] weaving in and out of lanes, horns sounding, drivers giving me the finger; stopping for gas, finding a liquor store, a motel with mildewed carpets and an empty swimming pool; handing money to a large woman in polka-dotted pajamas; typewriter keys hitting the page like a pervert’s kiss or gunshots in the night […]
Maybe this is the final twist — that Haut created Billy as part of a longer con, as a new kind of unlikable character, a commentary on those who have lost the plot, unsure of whom they exactly are after a lifetime of blind pragmatism. In Skin Flick, a noted scholar of hard-boiled fiction slyly messes with our heads, revising our expectations of classic noir protagonists who were objects of fate rather than masters of their destiny, doomed by their own indecision and wrong choices.
Gabriel Hart is a writer living in Morongo Valley in California’s high desert. His most recent book is the literary-pulp collection Fallout from Our Asphalt Hell (2021).
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