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Skids

by Cathleen With

“Skids” is the slang term for street kids or runaways living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Many of them are native Canadians, many are HIV-positive, and many are addicted to heroin, crystal meth, or alcohol. They are unwed teenage mothers or victims of sexual abuse at the hands of family members or surrogate family members. They turn tricks for drug money; they float in and out of detox and rehab clinics.

The dozen stories in Cathleen With’s new collection focus squarely on the lives of these marginalized urban denizens, sketching their existence in language that is raw and immediate, yet also infused with compassion and understanding. There is a marked lack of sentimentality to these stories. The characters do not retreat into maudlin self-pity, but instead cling desperately – almost defiantly – to whatever rays of hope manage to shine into their dark lives.

With locates a certain nobility in the lives of her dispossessed and forgotten characters. The narrator of “Create a Real Available Beach,” a drug-addicted skid who has done a stint in juvenile detention for breaking and entering, gets a chance to visit with the daughter she gave up to social services (because keeping her “wasn’t manageable”). The HIV-positive male prostitute in “Angel’s House of Ice” refuses to perform certain sex acts with clients because, as he says, “I am no kind of HIV murderer.” And Charlie, the protagonist of “Sanny Tranny Is Alive and Well and Living on Davie,” finds redemption in helping his transvestite father, who is suffering from kidney failure.

The stories occasionally feel too brief and underdeveloped, more like sketches than fully realized pieces. A reader is sometimes left wishing that the author had chosen to include fewer stories, and to flesh them out in a more deliberate and detailed manner. But the stories largely succeed, thanks to the author’s voice, which is original, fresh, and authentic. With inhabits her characters from the inside out, and presents them to us with a clear, unblinking gaze. These stories feel lived rather than imagined.