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Originally published Sunday, December 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM


Like "Tetrasomy Two," Skeels was a true original

So long, Oscar Rossiter — and Vernon Skeels, we're going to miss you too. "Oscar Rossiter" was actually the pseudonym of Skeels, a Seattle doctor who died last month at age 89 and was the author of one of the most curious novels ever to come out of this city.

Seattle Times book critic

So long, Oscar Rossiter — and Vernon Skeels, we're going to miss you too.

"Oscar Rossiter" was actually the pseudonym of Skeels, a Seattle doctor who died last month at age 89 and was the author of one of the most curious novels ever to come out of this city.

That book, "Tetrasomy Two," is science fiction that doesn't reveal itself as science fiction until its last two pages. It's also a hospital-set farce in which the narrator either has unusual psychic gifts or is losing his mind. And if he's losing his mind, then perhaps the book isn't science fiction after all.

As Skeels liked to say: "Maybe the guy's just crazy."

The book was published by Doubleday in 1974 and reprinted as a prestigious "Frederick Pohl Selection" in Bantam paperbacks in 1975. It also appeared in England.

I had the pleasure of knowing Vernon and his wife, Lois, to whom the book is dedicated, for more than 20 years. They were married for more than 65 years and lived in a book-filled, art-filled house on Capitol Hill, where they raised four daughters, held great dinner parties and served good wine. Their warmth and curiosity — and Vernon's voluble eccentricity — filled their home. Lois died earlier this year at 87. Still, a part of their life lives on in certain scenes in "Tetrasomy Two."

An inspired idea

The premise of the book is genius itself. Narrator Dr. Boyd, doing his first year's residence at a state psychiatric hospital, becomes fixated on a 55-year-old patient, Ernest Peckham, whose chart has read so monotonously for the last eight years — pulse, temperature and blood pressure all the same, week after week, month after month — that it's scarcely credible.

Not only that: Peckham has perfect teeth, he blinks every 39.75 seconds on the dot and each of his stools weighs exactly 184 grams. He also gives great stock market tips — perhaps out loud, perhaps telepathically. It's difficult to say.

Dr. Boyd, however, has trouble convincing his colleagues how extraordinary Peckham is. So he digs deeper, investigates Peckham's history ... and finds that this unusual patient has been institutionalized from childhood and that he may want it that way.

Indeed, although Peckham seems to have "tucked himself away in his mind," he may be influencing events around him to a remarkable degree.

Peckham is the mystery at the heart of the novel, but Dr. Boyd is its main attraction. With his odd habits (including fountain-pen collecting), his desperate flustered crush on one of the nurses (the enigmatic Mrs. Waggoner) and his ever-more-peculiar movements of mind, Dr. Boyd is a brightly zany presence on the page. He hits an antic peak halfway through the novel in a party scene (set in a house much like the Skeels') where he explains why Pulex irritans, the human flea, is doomed to extinction: "I'm not saying we shouldn't try to preserve the species, but surely the fleas are as much to blame as man for the trouble they're in."


Infused with reality

Seattle isn't identified by name in "Tetrasomy Two," but references to lakeshore mansions and a demolished downtown library ("It hadn't occurred to me that like pens, libraries could be disposable") draw lightly on our town — while a brief beach idyll is clearly set on the Oregon coast, where the Skeels had a second home.

There's more than a smidgen of Vernon in "the skinny little resident who carried a different pen every day and whose voice got higher and shakier as he moved up the hall on his rounds." Vernon's own voice was an uproarious, upward-bound creak that reached the countertenor range whenever he got excited about anything — which was often.

The name "Oscar Rossiter," Skeels' son-in-law Max Nicolai recalls, came from one of the antique fountain pens in Vernon's extensive collection. Before the book was even written, Oscar enjoyed a lively existence as the putative owner of an antique store in Pike Place Market that Lois and her friend Patricia Illman ran in the 1960s, called The Penultimate Shop (Vernon supplied the name). Daughter Janet Skeels-Baron remembers hearing that whenever suspicious types turned up wanting to sell goods that looked stolen, Lois and Pat would say they couldn't possibly buy anything without the approval of Oscar — who of course was never in.

The use of a pseudonym for the book may have been a last-minute thought. Daughter Marilyn Nicolai recalls seeing a manuscript where "Vernon Skeels" was crossed out and "Oscar Rossiter" written in its place. "He didn't want his patients knowing he'd written the book," Marilyn says. "He thought it was just a little too strange — and racy."

A fondness for Oscar

"Tetrasomy Two," long out of print, was the only novel Vernon published. He told me once that Lois felt its composition took too much time out of their busy lives: "And I guess she was right."

Skeels' son-in-law Philip Wohlstetter points out that fountain-pen collecting and fiction writing were just two of Vernon's enthusiasms: "Everything was an intense hobby for a year or two, and then he moved on to the next thing." Those pastimes included growing bonsai; creating a rose garden; and collecting clocks, old magazines and wide-angle views of Seattle.

Still, Vernon retained a clear fondness for his novel. When his daughter Christina Wohlstetter brought a copy of the book to the nursing home where he was being cared for, Vernon couldn't be bothered with lunch. Instead he wanted to show off to the nursing staff: "I wrote this!"

And when his son-in-law Jeffrey Baron offered to read aloud to him, Vernon barely acknowledged the first two choices offered: The New York Times or a John Maynard Keynes biography. But when Jeff proposed, "Or I could read you something of Oscar Rossiter," Vernon piped up as clear as could be.

"That," he said, "would be brilliant."

Jeff and daughter Kathleen Skeels read to him from the novel on several occasions after that, while other Skeels family members read his favorite poems to him (or heard him recite them from memory).

Lois and Vernon Skeels are survived by daughters Christina Wohlstetter, Marilyn Nicolai, Kathleen Skeels and Janet Skeels-Baron; sons-in-law Philip Wohlstetter, Max Nicolai, Jeffrey Baron and Doug Nufer; grandchildren Isabel, Max, Julia and Ava; and a host of devoted friends.

Michael Upchurch:

He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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