Book review: The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse
One of the great pleasures of the book review racket comes when a new writer unexpectedly arrives fully formed. It happened last year with Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders led me to intemperately call him “Pakistan’s Chekhov.” Now it’s Brando Skyhorse’s turn.
I picked up The Madonnas of Echo Park, Skyhorse’s first book, with some skepticism. First, there’s that name, which strikes with the clang of a cultural mash-up, like “Elvis Costello,” or “Marilyn Manson.” Then, the publisher is not content to market Madonnas as a short story collection. No, it must be “a novel in stories.”
But it turns out the name is legit — Skyhorse’s stepfather was Native American — and the stories prove themselves, bit by bit, to be neatly linked by time, place and recurring characters. If it’s not quite a “novel,” it’s not a gimmick, either.
The Madonnas of Echo Park is set in the Mexican community of Los Angeles, each story told from the point of view of a different character. The opening line of the first story, “Bienvenidos,” firmly sets the tone: “We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that was once ours.”
The speaker is Hector, an illegal immigrant who came here as a child and has no memory of Mexico. The restaurant he worked for 18 years has gone out of business, and he’s reduced to day labor. Through the course of an eventful day’s work — he witnesses a murder – we learn his entire life story. In the end, he goes to the police, knowing he will likely face deportation.
Echo Park is the Los Angeles section Mexicans were forced into after their original neighborhood, Chavez Ravine, was bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium. Or as Hector says, “[M]y family lost their home in Chavez Ravine to the cheers of gringos rooting for a baseball team they stole from another town.”
Skyhorse gives us one vivid story after another, and sometimes stories within stories: a cleaning lady strikes up an odd friendship with the depressed wife of a rich client; an embittered woman receives visitations from the Virgin Mary (who proves testy); a group of girls and their mothers, dancing on the street in imitation of Madonna, gets caught in gang crossfire, and a three-year-old girl dies.
The weakest writing in the book comes at the very beginning, in Skyhorse’s autobiographical author’s note, with its faint whiffs of nostalia, confessionalism and sentimentality. None of these are to be found in the eight stories that follow. On the contrary.
The Madonnas of Echo Park is one of those books that suddenly seems to come together about half way in. For me this happened with “Rules of the Road,” the fourth story, in which a self-hating Mexican bus driver accidentally kills a black passenger.
That story is filled with so much texture and detail and humanity and the kind of weirdness that seems utterly true and believable. One after another the rest of the stories rise to the same level, as Mexicans become Mexican-Americans, and the children of immigrants find their way into mainstream life, and Echo Park attracts whites looking for cheap real estate and becomes gentrified and trendy.
But flipping back to the first three stories, I find they are filled with thhe same qualities. That means Skyhorse is not a writer finding his voice as he pieces this collection together, but one who is teaching us how to read him as we go. These stories are the work of a significant new voice, full and rich and richly subtle.
Two more things: We seem to be in the midst of a second wave of immigrant writing, if Skyhorse is any indication. Although Madonnas covers familiar immigrant territory, it lacks PC stridency, viewing the faults and virtues of all concerned — Mexicans, whites, blacks, Asians, men, women, gays — with the same balanced gaze. As one of Skyhorse’s chracters says, “A Mexican is not all I am.”
Also, for a man, Skyhorse has an amazing eye and ear for the way women talk, look, behave — and think and feel. Some of the most powerful stories in this collection are told from a woman’s point of view. “Cool Kids” is the story of an intense high school friendship between two girls, the glamorous and self-assured Duchess and the introspective but aspirational Angie. Every word rings true. It’s a bit of magic, that Skyhorse could know such things.
Brando Skyhorse will be at Books & Books tonight at 8 p.m. to read from The Madonnas of Echo Park. 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. 305.442.4408.