There is something undeniably enticing about the narrator (“call him Samuel Bennet”) of Dylan Thomas’ unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade. Published as part of a collection in 1953, the eponymous piece of prose details Bennet’s migration from his home in Wales (Thomas’ own home) to London. What the young Samuel Bennet encounters, however, is far from his expectations. It is the shattering of this dream, and Bennet’s own strangely artistic nihilism, that makes him so enthralling.
“I am ignorant, lazy, dishonest and sentimental,” Bennet readily admits. These aren’t perhaps the best qualities to look for in a crush, but Samuel Bennet exalts them beyond reason. His determination to start at the bottom is almost endearing, though slightly maddening. He tosses pages of helpful names and address down a train toilet as he speeds along. Once in London, Samuel does exactly as he wants: he gets a nip of bass and a stale sandwich. Of course, once in London the banality of real life sets in and within a millisecond he runs into someone he knows. However, Dylan Thomas’ ability to create poetry out of the seemingly meaningless moments is what makes the scene enjoyable.
Samuel Bennet’s powers of observation are keen, and his imagination turns these observations into wild fantasies. He possesses the kind of mind that you want to dissect, to see if creativity is simply a peculiar firing of neurons or if it’s something ephemeral and indefinable. He invents wild pasts, presents and futures for the people in the café: a whirlwind romance with an Irish tart, a waitress with a “consumptive husband who needs those pennies. And two children. Tristram and Eve. He changed the names quickly. Thomas and Marge.” While his demeanor to those who threaten his reverie is less than polite, there isn’t anything particularly nasty about Samuel Bennet. His dishonesty isn’t the vindictive type; it is simply a real-life exaggeration of artistic and poetic license. Indeed, he ends up replacing three stolen pennies with his own sixpence; a good samaritan to boot.
There’s a black humor about Samuel Bennet, not only in his vivid fantasies about other people’s lives, but in his mildly ludicrous behavior. He gets his finger stuck in a bottle, but isn’t too bothered about it. In fact, he leaves the café with the bottle still on his finger. When he finally does leave the café, he ends up in a far more peculiar place than he could have ever dreamed: a house dedicated to selling furniture. But the furniture isn’t organized. In fact, it is strewn haphazardly throughout the home, making it nearly impossible to navigate. It seemed that, as if by arriving without expectation, “to see what would happen to me. I don’t want to make anything happen myself,” Samuel Bennet ended up in the most perfect of situations: “the day was moving carelessly on to a promised end and in a dark room full of furniture where he’d lie down with his bunch of wives in a crow’s-nest bed.” It was precisely sentimental enough for the despondent protagonist.
Yet for all his peculiarity, there is something about him that remains naïve and innocent – and when confronted with the chance to have sex in a tub with a beautifully serious girl, “a flood in an apron,” Sam becomes all nerves. It is this clinging to childlike innocence, or something of the sort, that is the undercurrent to his overriding adolescent nihilism. It rounds him out, it makes him real, makes him human.
The story, never finished, leaves Samuel Bennet also incomplete. He is frozen in time, forever almost twenty years old, a bumbling boy with a bottle on his finger, a boy who drank eau de cologne by mistake, who fled to London in search of something, though precisely what not even he is certain. He’s the boy you meet when you’re all malleable and uncertain, only sure of your own passion and heat, wanting someone to share all the made up stories – both brilliantly beautiful and scarily violent – that live in your head. Despite his laziness, ignorance, dishonesty and sentimentality, the one thing I know is I’d gladly be the one to pull help get that bottle off of his finger.