Book review: I’d Rather Not, Robert Skinner

Amusing tales of a dilettante.

With his dry, wry tone and self-deprecation, Robert Skinner is comparable to US humorist David Sedaris, who also mines his own life for material. There is a similarity in the way both men take the trivial and quotidian and spin tales of pathos, with a droll, feather-light touch that lifts up even the most dire of situations.

I’d Rather Not is a slim volume of autobiographical essays in which Skinner sets out in episodic fashion, some of the trials and (mis)adventures of his life, but this is no misery memoir that wallows in self-pity, with a rousing morale at the end that champions resilience atop a scrap heap. Mercifully free of existential angst, he’s amiable and charming, able to make you both commiserate with and laugh at his misfortunes and missteps.

The first story, ‘War and Peace’ recalls the writer having to register at Centrelink for unemployment benefits and trying his best not to get a job, to the chagrin of various doleful officers assigned to his case. His plan at least, is to avoid productivity until he has finished Tolstoy’s brick-size volume.

Though settled and gainfully employed now in a bookshop, Skinner once faced bouts of homelessness and rough living – moving about between couches, lawns and living room floors –  but somehow, perhaps as a testament to his foolishness and determination, he still managed to run and edit a short story journal (The Canary Press). At least being a literary publisher of sorts offered him direction and momentum. As he waxes philosophical à la Wilde, ‘it’s better to sleep on hard ground with a sense of purpose… than in eiderdown without one’.

Skinner is a self-confessed dilettante, with the stories as peripatetic as his own restless life. Equipped with a cheery disposition and a devil-may-care sense of fatalism, he seems to be constantly on the look-out for his next adventure. The book may be called I’d Rather Not, but it feels as if Skinner would do it anyway, simply for a dare, and then turn it into a vignette.

There are eminently quotable one-liners in a book that’s held together by wit, whimsy and, even occasionally, wisdom. The duty of a host, Skinner points out, is ‘to provide a gentle heat so that people in the room, like particles in a beaker become energised enough to start reacting’. (He has a biology degree.)

Read: Book review: The Terrible Event, David Cohen

Elsewhere, he describes a stopover in Singapore Airport where he pretends to a rich man, power-walking around and being seduced by duty-free shopping, plus going on a 10-day camel trek with his parents and being a tour guide driver to Uluru. ‘I never had qualms messing around with the European version of things,’ he writes. ‘Most of the best places were just named after some guy.’

To make funny fodder out of a life full of ‘false starts, failures and endless dabbling’ is no easy task, but Skinner does so, and he does it well. I imagine he’d make an excellent dinner party guest, regaling everyone with his unlikely and possibly only slightly embellished tales.

I’d Rather Not, Robert Skinner
Publisher: Black Inc

ISBN: 9781760640354
Paperback: 176pp 
RRP: $27.99
Published: 4 July 2023

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on