Saving the city: Novelist has hopes for his craft

 Here's more evidence that Charlottesville is a powerful literary incubator.

Peter Skinner­ actor, painter, sculptor, and heir to the largest fortune ever made in Washington state until the arrival of Bill Gates-­ moved to Albemarle County for a handful of reasons. The topography reminded him of France; the people were odd; Sam Shepard offered to sell him his farm; and he wanted to write.

Ten years later, with the release of his debut novel, White Buffalo, he can add "writer" to his cache of talents.

"It's not a talent... it's something I'm good at," he retorts, because along with an artistic temperament, Skinner has a flair for rhetorical clarification.

A nutshell version of the author's biography indicates that much of White Buffalo– a story of a young American artist who emerges from years of hiding in a Parisian garret to confront his family's death and societal legacy in Indian-populated Washington– is autobiographical.

Does that mean that the Skinner family, which once owned the largest sawmill in the world, also owns half of the state of Washington, like the fictional Jack Williston?

"It's a gross exaggeration. But it's not inaccurate," Skinner concedes.

The trick of elucidating with obfuscation works well in Skinner's prose. Crafted from unrelated poems written over a couple of decades, White Buffalo manages to tell a simple story of loss and redemption in narration confused by chronology and mined with oblique metaphor.

When we're told that the eyes of a Flathead Indian are indistinguishable from a jutting promontory, we don't ask questions.

For a Renaissance man, Skinner is refreshingly pedestrian. He follows a schedule that involves the gym, Bodo's tunafish, picking up the kids from school, and writing. He left the Shepard farm for Rugby Road in 1998. And although he doesn't follow the city's no-growth politics, his book nevertheless trembles with messages of environmental conservation.

Concern about the human-ecological relationship gathered strength when he returned from 16 years in Europe to a Seattle area that was unrecognizable.

"As is happening in Charlottesville, it grew like a virus until the whole area didn't look anything like the place I grew up in," he says. "That's what will happen here if people don't love it."

When a reporter suggests that both Seattle and Charlottesville are practically poster cities for the "I (heart) (city)" t-shirt crowd, she's quickly corrected.

"I don't mean not popular. I mean not thought about," he says.

Skinner spends a lot of time thinking about Charlottesville, which he says is the first community he has ever identified with. He's writing a book about the town in the '50s, a project that he clearly considers an act of preservation.

Will Peter Skinner's novel attention somehow save Charlottesville from urban sprawl?

A gross exaggeration, perhaps, but not inaccurate.


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