Skin and Bones by Thorne Smith science fiction book reviewsSkin and Bones by Thorne Smith science fiction book reviewsSkin and Bones by Thorne Smith

Up until recent years, I could have counted on the fingers of one hand the books that have made this reader laugh out loud … and I still would have had a couple of fingers left over. Those three books – all of which make me chuckle today, just thinking about them – are, chronologically, Harry Harrison’s undeniably funny Bill, The Galactic Hero (1955), Eric Frank Russell’s hilarious sci-fi adventure The Great Explosion (1962), and, of course, John Kennedy Toole’s beloved classic A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), which earned its author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. But then one day this reader discovered Thorne Smith, whose playful, comedic fantasies had proven so popular with readers back in the late 1920s and 1930s; an author who, to my great delight, has been cracking me up every time I pick up one of his works. The Night Life of the Gods (1931) had been my introduction to Thorne Smith, a novel in which inventor Hunter Hawk, aided by the Fury named Megaera, had transformed a gaggle of statues of the Roman gods into the genuine articles … with madcap results. Even funnier for me was Smith’s wacky comedy of scrambled sexes, Turnabout (also from 1931), in which a bickering husband and wife, Tim and Sally Willow, find themselves inhabiting each other’s body, thanks to the meddling intervention of their household’s Egyptian idol, and with predictably hilarious results. Curious to see whether lightning could possibly strike a third time, this reader recently picked up Thorne Smith’s 1933 novel Skin and Bones, and wouldn’t you know it … this one has turned out to be the funniest one yet!

Skin and Bones was originally released as a $2 hardcover from the American publisher Doubleday, Doran when Smith was 41, followed three years later by another hardcover from the British publisher Arthur Barker. Smith had been a popular author ever since the release of his breakthrough novel Topper in 1926, and his books typically sold very well. Skin and Bones, thus, saw further editions in 1937 and 1939, as well as an Armed Services edition in 1944 and a Pocket Books edition in 1948. Sadly, however, after its 1962 incarnation from the British publisher May Fair Books, the book went OOPs (out of prints) and has stayed that way for the last 61 years, as of this writing (although any number of ebook versions are currently available). The edition that I was fortunate enough to nab is an omnibus from 1943 entitled The Thorne Smith 3-Bagger, which also includes Topper as well as Smith’s 1934 novel The Glorious Pool, both of which I hope to read down the line.

Smith’s book introduces the reader to another bickering married couple, Quintus and Lorna Bland, who, when we initially encounter them, are having a knockdown, drag-out altercation about a painting that Mrs. Bland has just purchased. We sense that if it hadn’t been the painting, any other cause would have provided the fuel for another of the Blands’ perpetual fights. In a huff, Lorna decides to go out on a dinner date with local playboy Phil Harkens, while Quintus departs from their suburban home in New Jersey to seek some action in a Manhattan speakeasy. But while happily getting swizzled in that nightclub, Mr. Bland is startled to discover that he has somehow become a human skeleton, albeit a skeleton capable of walking, talking and – most importantly – drinking! Quintus, it seems, in his job as a professional photographer, had been tinkering around with some chemicals that he’d hoped might lead to the invention of a new “fluoroscopic camera film,” with which we infer the use of X-rays would prove unnecessary. But the prolonged inhalation of those chemical fumes has now resulted in Quintus Bland becoming a see-through man; an animated skeleton! And what’s worse, as future events demonstrate, the condition is unpredictably intermittent, causing Quintus to change back and forth from skeleton to naked man (clothes, sadly enough, don’t hang on Bland’s bones too well, although a ZZ Top-style phony beard does help to cover his grimacing skull), usually at the most inopportune moments.

Thus, over the course of Smith’s increasingly zany book, Bland meets a drunken couple, Claude and Pauline Whittle, in that speakeasy and, covered in baggy clothes, goes to a restaurant with them, where he encounters his wife and Harkens, leading to pandemonium. The next day, Quintus reverts to a skeleton while sitting in a barber’s chair, and later causes another hullabaloo at his mortician buddy’s shop, scandalizing a society couple and a priest. More drunken antics with Brown the mortician ensue, somehow leading to a deluxe coffin being delivered to the Blands’ living room. The arrival of Lorna’s sister and brother-in-law results in still more wackiness, as does the Blands’ drunken decision to dig a grave in their backyard, as a snoopy policeman looks on. And things only get loopier when the Blands’ dog, Busy, laps up some of that novel chemical and becomes a walking skeleton himself! A consultation at a doctor’s office almost leads to Quintus being placed in a mental institution, after which Bland’s sudden skeletonization on a suburban commuter train causes more problems. Calling upon his new friends, the Whittles, for assistance, the walking boneman is put up in their hotel, where he is challenged to a contest by a French magician, is shot at by three gangsters, and causes a panic in the hotel’s steam room and swimming pool. Ultimately, an ugly mob hunts Quintus down and shoots him, landing him in the hospital, where even further hijinks ensue. How will this cross between a prancing skeleton and Billy Gibbons ever manage to come through all this with his skull in one piece, the reader wonders, all the while giggling all the way…

Par for the course for a Thorne Smith novel, Skin and Bones features nonstop hilarity, risqué bits of erotic doings, and an absolutely incredible amount of alcohol consumption by its lead characters. The author manages to wring every bit of possible humor from Quintus Bland’s bizarre situation, one that is not supernatural for a change, but actually science fictional in nature. And oh my goodness, is this book ever funny! The drunken conversations, replete with puns, misunderstandings and non sequiturs, are a riot; the Blands’ aggressively sexual and increasingly befuddled maid, Fanny, is highly amusing; the Whittles are funny; Busy, described as being “square” in shape, is funny; the impromptu bones-to-flesh-to-bones transformations are funny; the sight of a bearded skeleton is funny; the run-ins with cops, drunks, crooks, cab drivers, train passengers, hospital workers, waiting-room patients … it’s all, remarkably enough, consistently funny. And just wait till you see that female mental patient screaming for “Spinach!” in the doctor’s waiting room. Funny! Actually, I do believe that Skin and Bones could have been made into an excellent screwball comedy back in the 1930s. But compared to the film adaptations of The Night Life of the Gods in 1935, Topper in 1937 and Turnabout in 1940, Skin and Bones would understandably have been far tougher to adapt, dependent as it would have been on costly and complicated special FX. A pity … I can easily envision Franchot Tone and, oh, maybe Carole Lombard playing the battling Blands.

Perhaps some examples of Smith’s abundant humor will help to make it clear just how very amusing this book is. Insults are casually hurled about, such as when Quintus, replying to Lorna’s assertion that she is not interested in butchers, says “I’m glad to learn … that there is one class of male that fails to attract you. Is it because they hide their trousers beneath their aprons?” Some of the insults are rather harsh but still funny in context, such as when Mr. Whittle tells Pauline “You’re an incorrigible voluptuary … a sex-ridden hag,” when Lorna says out of nowhere to Quintus “I hope your heart stops beating,” when Mr. Bland kindly asks Lorna “Will you please go to hell?,” and when Whittle later opines of his wife “Romance to her is strictly horizontal.” Smith has an amusing way of stating even the most barefaced facts, as when he writes “As a small boy Quintus had made clicks with his camera while his companions were making pops with their guns.” He also throws in any number of humorous and acerbic comments regarding marriage, suburban living, and the advertising world. (Smith, it will be remembered, had struggled to support his family by working as a copywriter in several ad agencies before finding success with Topper.) And so, we get this wonderful line regarding husbands and wives: “Frank [Lorna’s brother-in-law] grinned and followed his wife from the room, as husbands have been doing ever since doors were invented.” And this one, courtesy of Quintus Bland: “A man only knows how his wife is acting, never how she is thinking. God has spared him that final humiliation.” Misunderstandings abound, as when Lorna asks the maid “Did the dog howl just before?” and Fanny replies “Before what, madam?” I could go on and on but perhaps you begin to get the idea. Like the screwball comedy of film, here, the accumulated absurdities pile up ever faster, the author just barely managing to keep a firm grip on the outrageous proceedings. Yes, there are some barbed comments that Smith manages to get across, but the emphasis is always on humor. Smith supposedly once said “Like life itself my stories have no point and get absolutely nowhere.” But oh, even if so, getting nowhere has never been more fun!

For the rest of it, Skin and Bones features two excellent leads, Quintus easily holding our sympathies as we admire his drunken grit and humor in the face of an increasingly untenable situation, and Lorna … well, let’s just say that she does prove herself to be quite a wife by book’s end. Just look at her kicking butt in the doctor’s office to prevent her man from being stuck in a loony bin! Smith’s novel is hardly a perfect affair, and teeters dangerously close to the point of being silly on a few occasions. But perhaps my biggest problem with the book is the fact that it never clarifies whether or not Bland becomes an actual, defleshed skeleton OR if he is merely a see-through man. And if the latter, why do his bones clack when he walks, and clothes hang so precariously off of him? If a genuine skeleton, how does he talk, drink, see and so on? Smith seems to want to have it both ways … or perhaps I am overthinking things. Another item that was a minor problem for this reader was the entirety of the book’s penultimate chapter, in which matters grow so dark and desperate for Quintus that I really thought he was merely having a nightmare. But no. In a blistering commentary on the savagery of mob law, Bland is hunted through the woods and ultimately has a bullet fired into his chest. It is a startling moment of solemnity in a book that is otherwise relentlessly funny, and its grim tone sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. But other than these two, uh, bones of contention, I thoroughly enjoyed Smith’s wonderful work here; a work that did indeed have me laughing out loud any number of times.

I now find myself looking forward to reading The Glorious Pool, in the same 3-Bagger volume, more than ever. Smith has also been quoted as saying “Quite casually I wander into my plot, poke around with my characters for a while, then amble off, leaving no moral proved and no reader improved.” But I can hardly agree with that statement. No reader who is given sharply well-written food for thought, several nights of escapist relaxation, and big laughs to boot can be reasonably said to be unimproved as a result, and Skin and Bones provides all of the above in generous abundance!



  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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