If your name were Brando Skyhorse, you’d probably get a lot of practice telling your life story. You might wish you could just tell the story once, really well, and put it behind you.
At least one person’s name is Brando Skyhorse, and he’s written a good memoir for anyone interested in late 20th century Los Angeles, in race and its discontents, or in screwed-up fatherless childhoods. As for putting it behind him, does anybody? Ever?
Top this: Skyhorse grew up poor in a claustrophobic 1980s Echo Park home with a Chicana mother who pretended they were Native American, a bisexual grandmother who pretended she was straight, and five no-account stepfathers who each got out when the getting was no longer good. He and his mom loved each other to the point of claustrophobia, but she also dated men “like a chess master in the park playing five games at once.” She also tended to use butcher knives for conversational emphasis.
Government assistance helped, at least until Skyhorse’s mother began bringing in steady money as a phone-sex operator. Skyhorse sailed through high school and fled for Stanford, then UC Irvine and then New York, with paranoid depressions chasing him most of the way. At last, he became a promising novelist (“The Madonnas of Echo Park”) and a book editor.
Now he’s a memoirist, and his writing is frequently lovely: “Out front a virile jacaranda tree made a lifelong enemy of my grandmother, shedding pulpy blossoms that stained the staircase black. Armed with a pushbroom, a transistor radio, and a Dodgers cap, she’d sweep through thick lavender rainstorms twice a week.”
Maybe “mop up” instead of “sweep through” could have kept the chronology straighter, and tacking “tree” on after “jacaranda” adds next to nothing. But readers will see the whole image so clearly, in a few months they’ll think they’re remembering it.
Like many a lonely, grandiose kid, Skyhorse sometimes imagined himself in his own movie, even casting famous actors as his various stepfathers. One looked like “‘Roseanne'-era John Goodman,” another like “a ‘hot’ Esai Morales” circa “La Bamba.”
This tactic helped Skyhorse feel a little less puny and pizza-faced, and it also had the virtue of making his rocky life seem just slightly unreal. Not surprisingly, he favored actors best known for their supporting roles, saving for himself the top billing that his mercurial mother and grandmother habitually arrogated to themselves.
The only thing missing here is any sense that Skyhorse really is a star, transcending a wack-ball family and a then-sketchy neighborhood to become a gifted writer. Skyhorse plays down this portrait-of-the-artist angle and plays up the sordidness — defensibly, since the dysfunction gets pretty extreme. One off-and-on stepfather tries to apologize for stealing some of Brando’s college fund by asking, “If there had been that much there, you think I’d have come back?”
Skyhorse may feel that his one acclaimed novel wouldn’t have justified a traditional “How I Became a Writer” approach. “How I Didn’t Become a Basket Case” usually finds a wider readership anyway. Except, of course, that becoming a writer probably kept him from becoming a basket case, so we’re only ever seeing part of the story. Practically the sole glimpse we get of another, more writerly shadow memoir is this one great sentence: “At that age, books held my hand everywhere.” Which books, we never learn.
Judged on its own terms, though, “Take This Man” does most everything a good memoir should: evoke a time and a place, shape a life without contorting it and give some idea of how that life yielded the author we meet today. The title phrase appears nowhere in the book, but its meaning is hard to miss. Skyhorse’s mother brings home man after man, each time exhorting her son to take him in and accept him as the father he desperately wants. Then the new stepdad’s taillights turn back onto Sunset — the unseen boulevard looming and thrumming a block away, like the Mississippi River next to Hannibal — and another man takes his place.
Inevitably, “Take This Man” also refers to Skyhorse himself. He offers himself to us as a work in progress: 40, unmarried, straight, undecided about fatherhood. Once a gifted child, he’s traded his precocity for caution. Take this man and do what with him?
It’ll be a pleasure to watch Brando Skyhorse’s career and find out. All midlife memoirs end arbitrarily, but this one nevertheless feels nicely finished, rounded off, done with. Early on, Skyhorse plants a marker with the line, “It took Google about ten minutes to find my father” — another writer might rightly have led with that — so we sense all along where he’s headed. By the time he pays it off with an unlikely reunion, we’ve gotten to know and like the women in his life enough for their monstrosities to look more like foibles. Snuggling onto the couch between them to watch an old movie even sounds like fun, provided the silverware drawer stays locked.
Skyhorse’s last page works so well, it gilds the rest of the book in a sweet, retroactive glow. Sometimes a book catches you in a weak moment, so I went back to read the scene a few weeks later, just to make sure. Knowing what was coming made it only better.
Kipen, a former literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts literature director, is the founder of Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library in Boyle Heights. His journalism has appeared recently in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles magazine.
Take This Man
Simon & Schuster: 272 pp., $26