[an analysis by Miguel Mendoza]
“Cinnamon Skin,” by Edmund White, is a coming of age story about a young man who struggles with his homosexuality, particularly when faced with his father’s old fashioned notions of manhood. In the story, the young narrator is taken on a trip to Mexico where he is overwhelmed by the country’s exoticism, especially when contrasted with his native Chicago. This setting proves propitious for the cultivation of the young man’s sexuality, which culminates in a clandestine meeting with a local man in which the narrator loses more than his virginity—his innocence, his romantic notions of the world and of love. He gains a lurid cynicism, and the changes he experiences are mirrored in Mexico City itself when the narrator returns as an adult to find it crumbling, much as he himself was crumbling: HIV positive and on the verge of suicide.
The story is written as a memoir, in past tense and with the knowledge that the narrator is telling the story years after the fact. This method allows the narrator to color even his earliest experiences with the perspective he gains in later years. Some of his cynicism is apparent in his telling of early events, although this remains subtle until the climax of the story. The overall tone is frank, but easygoing; it’s not until the end that the tone changes drastically, becoming blunt, unapologetic and even shocking when used to juxtapose the young narrator’s childhood fantasies. In adopting this particular harshness, the tone breaks the illusions cradled by the narrator’s naiveté, and delivers instead a sobering reality. To contextualize, here is the crude reality of what the narrator thought would be a fantastically romantic encounter in an exotic land: “Pablo [a pianist in his late thirties] undressed. He didn’t kiss me. He pulled my underpants down, spit on his wide, stubby cock, and pushed it up my ass. He didn’t hold me in his arms.” Keeping in mind that the narrator is at this time a twelve year old boy, the grotesque nonchalance of the passage shocks the reader in a way perhaps not dissimilar to the shock the narrator may have received upon discovering his fantasies to be nothing more than youthful fantasies.
Apart from tone, a cunning selection of words helps deliver the same grotesqueness on which this story depends. The author wants the reader to be as shocked as the narrator was when he lost his boyhood innocence, and to achieve this, there must be a profound contrast between the young, effeminate boy, and the man who took so much from him. To this end, the pianist is described as “…a jowly Indian in his late thirties,” with a “…fat belly…” and who smelled like “…cold sweat.” When these descriptions are compounded, along with the blunt tone of the story, the reader experiences, perhaps, what the author intended for the narrator—an uncomfortable awakening, so to speak, or an abrupt, and maybe even forceful, realization: the world is not as a young, fanciful boy imagines it to be. It is harsher and crueler.