Poorly Drawn Boy
In The Skin of a Lion has not one but two scenes in which Patrick Lewis is sketched. Early in the story, his father Hazen “outlined the boy’s body onto the plank walls with green chalk. Then he tacked wires back and forth across the outline as if realigning the veins in his son’s frame. Muscles of cordite and the spine a tributary of the black powder fuse. This is how the boy remembers his father, studying the outline which the boy has just stepped away from as the lit fuse smoulders up and blows out a section of plank where the head had been.”
The context for this scene is that Hazen is learning to become adept with dynamite so that he can hire himself to logging and mining companies. There’s no way around it though, it’s an odd education. He outlines his son on some wood and then arranges fuses and wires so that he can precisely blow-up certain areas of the board—like the outline of his son’s head.
Life with my father was no walk in the park, but he never did anything like this.
Call Protective Services!
In any case, it’s an evocative scene. Patrick’s form is recreated in a particular, possibly unique way and then altered. A type of performance art, you ask? Maybe. Actually, there’s never any suggestion of danger for Patrick, and his father is generally portrayed as a good guy.
Manly fun, eh? Boom!
Annette Hilger makes some wise comments about this scene and the circumstances of Patrick’s childhood, pointing out that Patrick’s mother, Hazen’s wife, is never mentioned. The effect is that Patrick is raised solely by a man. Masculine nurturance. “The father’s violent extraction of his son’s form also foreshadows the self-destructive element inherent in man’s construction of self.”
Dr. Hilger then contrasts this with the second scene of Patrick being “sketched.” He is together with Clara and Alice at the farmhouse, and falls asleep while the two women remain awake.
…they say to each other, “Let’s get him.”
“In the darkness of the farmhouse, Clara and Alice approach his bed. They carry candles and a large roll of paper, whispering to each other. They uncover the face of Patrick hidden in the green blanket. This is enough. The candles are placed on a straight-backed chair. They cut the paper with draper’s scissors and pin the four corners of it to the floor. They begin to draw hard and quickly, as if copying down a blueprint in a foreign country. It seems as illicit as that. Approaching a sleeping man to see what he will reveal of himself in his portrait at this time of night…They have done this often to each other, these spirit paintings, the head leaking purple or yellow—auras of jealousy and desire. Given the vagueness of his covered body, they draw upon all they know or can guess about him. They kneel, their heads bright beside the candlelight, crayoning against the texture of the floor. Anger, honesty, stumble out. One travels along a descant of insight and the other follows, completes the phrase, making the gesture safe.
A cave mural. The yellow light flickers upon his face against the sofa cushion, upon the two women sweating during the close night, their heads down as if pulling something out of a river. One leans back to stretch while the other explores the portrait. ‘Are we witches?’ Alice asks.”
So apparently, those scamps Clara and Alice have covered Patrick in paper while he sleeps and make a life-size copy of him with crayons. Do they color him in? I don’t know, my friends. I do think there’s something powerful in this scene as there also is in the previous one with Patrick’s father. In that one, a copy of Patrick’s life-size image is altered with fire by his father; in this one, two women again copy him, copy a “blueprint” for a man, perhaps to understand a mystery? What do they learn from doing this? It’s not one of the things shown in the story. His father “copies” him in order to learn about fire and creative destruction; the women “copy” him as a way of “getting” him, of capturing his spirit, I think. It’s significant that while his father blows up the area of the board representing his head, the women uncover his head and only sketch the rest of him.
(Uh, why is this significant?)
It’s significant because his father focuses on the head, the center of consciousness. The women copy his body, the site of sensuous sensation. Together, they make a whole Patrick. Patrick doesn’t become human till he is involved with women, before that he’s a consciousness, somewhat immortal. When he encounters the women, he experiences human feelings of connection and loss that are not present before. They “teach” him to be human.
There is an intriguing third instance of the body’s appearance being altered, the scene in which Caravaggio is covered with blue paint so that he can “disappear” and escape the prison.
The fact that Patrick is sketched twice makes it meaningful. What’s going on? you ask. Patrick is the hero of Lion. Like Gilgamesh, he undertakes an ordeal and a quest when he journeys beneath Lake Ontario to enter the Waterworks through the intake tunnel. The book sketches him; the book shows him being sketched. In both scenes, he is passive, and he is immortalized.
Both key scenes are shown by the narrator from a very hidden position. In the first, the narrator quickly describes things, and then, “this is how the boy remembers his father, studying the outline where the boy had just stepped away from as the lit fuse smoulders up and blows a section of plank where the head had been.” So, the narrator is still doing its thing but has jumped to the future, describing the adult Patrick’s memories.
The second scene is similar. The narrator shows Clara and Alice surrounding the sleeping Patrick and drawing him, making a “spirit painting.” Then they go outside into the night to run in the rain. There is another shift where the narrator shows what Clara sees, “Clara sees Alice subliminal in movement almost rising up into the air, shirt removed, so her body can meet the rain.”
Patrick apparently sleeps through it all. A sound sleeper.