Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly described Brando Skyhorse as an “American Indian activist, incarcerated for armed robbery.” That is, in fact, a description of the author’s stepfather Paul Skyhorse Johnson. This version has been corrected.
Brando Skyhorse’s memoir, “Take This Man,” is written with such velocity and stark recollection that it feels as if the author is writing to save his life.
The book is filled with incident after incident of Skyhorse’s screwed-up, hardscrabble upbringing in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. But it’s not all bleak. He also riffs with a survivor’s humor — severe irony mixed with the wonder of being alive. This is a searingly funny and fearless book.
Skyhorse’s childhood was unusual. The name Skyhorse is not the one that appears on his birth certificate but was part of a more dramatic identity imagined for him by his mother, “a Mexican who wanted to be an American Indian”: At age 3, “I became the son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, an American Indian activist incarcerated for armed robbery who my mother met through the mail. She became Running Deer Skyhorse.” His mother, whose real name was Maria Teresa and who was for a time a phone-sex operator, advertised in a magazine to give him away for adoption, although she denied she had done so. Through his teenage years, he was ambushed by a hailstorm of his mother’s pathological lying.Often using butcher knives to emphasize even the most skewed of her opinions, she dated men “like a chess master in the park playing five games at once.” (He had five stepfathers.) Yet Skyhorse loved her deeply.
Given this background, it’s a miracle of perseverance that Skyhorse sailed through high school and lit out for Stanford, then the University of California at Irvine, then to New York. Paranoid depression was a hellhound always on his trail. And yet there is a kind of redemption in his harrowing journey: He became a splendid writer. His 2010 novel, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” won a PEN/Hemingway award.
Every page of “Take This Man” contains, in deftly agitated prose, a duet between a depleted spirit and the grandiosity of daily life — well, at least the life of Brando Skyhorse. After just a dozen pages, it becomes clear that Skyhorse is an expert at how we are shaped by improbable circumstances. “Take This Man” should be on the same shelf with Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life,” or maybe it should occupy an off-tilt, splintered shelf of its own.
The cast of characters is right out of Central Dysfunctional Family Casting. While reading “Take This Man,” I kept telephoning friends to say, “You aren’t going to believe this!” Skyhorse’s grandmother June, like his mother, also bends the truth, with a kind of wild, exacting flair; she’s like a wacked-out elderly Bette Davis, an aficionado of crime fiction who keeps tabs on local street gangs. At 9, Skyhorse watches “Psycho” with his grandmother. In fact, “Take This Man” would make a terrific movie, if that isn’t an undignified thing to say about such a fine literary work. I say this because Skyhorse’s writing has such vivid immediacy, beautifully drawn scenes and cameo appearances by all sorts of unusual, memorable characters. And also, like a lot of self-invented loners, Skyhorse often imagined himself in his own movie. He even cast famous actors as his myriad stepfathers. “One looked like Roseanne-era John Goodman,” another like “a ‘hot’ Esai Morales” in “La Bamba.”
The almost-mythic narrative follows Skyhorse’s search for his biological father, Frank, a quest that begins with promising mundanity: “It took Google about ten minutes to find my father.” Yet tracking down this man proves complex, vexing and tragicomic.
Toward the end of “Take This Man,” there is much hard-earned perspective. I deeply admired Skyhorse’s capacity for forgiveness, but, truth be told, it surprised me, and I didn’t think everyone deserved it. The closing pages also speak to a kind of wishful reprieve from chaos: “When I am a father at last,” Skyhorse writes, “I want to gather the men who fathered me over a large family-style dinner. . . . After a few drinks, our memories would recede like the tide and the day-to-day lives we lead would spill out in all their banal glory, and we’d laugh at how ordinary our days have become. . . . A chorus of six men calling me ‘Son’ might sound ludicrous to you, but to me it’s the sound of survival; voices that have the power by the very noise they make to turn madness into song.”
The postscript of Skyhorse’s tour-de-force consists of a self-reflective excerpt from “my mother’s unpublished memoirs, circa 1997.” Boy, would I love to read all of her pages, too!
Norman’s new novel is “Next Life Might Be Kinder.”
Take this man
Simon & Schuster, 258 pp., $26