"A chorus of six men calling me Son might sound ludicrous to you, but to me it's the sound of survival." Brando Skyhorse grew up in Echo Park, California in the 1970s, not knowing the truth about his heritage. His Mexican mother, a compulsive liar, renamed him as a Native American (see 'Beyond the Book') and disowned his biological father, who left when Skyhorse was three. Over the years she introduced five "fathers" and a plethora of boyfriends into her son's life. It is no surprise that, in such an unsettled environment, Skyhorse "thought family members were like trading cards."
The core of Skyhorse's family was his mother, Maria (or "Running Deer," as she later renamed herself), and his grandmother, June, a formidable figure known as the "unofficial mayor" of their ghetto, always initiating feuds with the neighbors. Skyhorse slept in his grandmother's bed until he was 16 because Maria wanted to keep her bed free for trysts "She hated mothering me," Skyhorse recalls. However, she did not hesitate to take Brando out on "manhunts" to search for potential husbands she met through singles ads.
Maria's sense of victimhood caused her to lash out and fabricate convenient truths; she could blame Brando for all hardships, from being on welfare and food stamps to losing things. Yet her responses were out of all proportion: she once throttled Brando and shoved his head in a toilet for misplacing some train tickets. Screaming abuse and pulling a knife on Brando or one of his stepfathers were alarmingly common incidents. As Skyhorse's girlfriend later observed, "She's like a big tornado. You have to know when to duck."
"Impermanence," Skyhorse notes, characterized his childhood. Caught between two volatile maternal figures, he looked to a string of deadbeat stepfathers for love and acceptance, but each let him down; "The average shelf life for a stepfather was two to three years." Pat and Robert were conmen; Robert once got them kicked out of Disneyland for disorderly behavior. Frank, Skyhorse's first stepfather, was the only one to stay in his life after breaking up with Maria; today he still supports him by attending book signings. With the exception of Frank, the pattern was always the same: "Disappear. Repeat." The cyclical nature of these relationships, though true to life, can, unfortunately, make the book feel repetitive at times; it can be a struggle to keep track of all the different men drifting in and out of the author's life.
This autobiographical story just keeps getting more bizarre; as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. Maria never divorced any of her husbands she used fake names and IDs for each marriage license so she was technically a polygamist. For a decade she worked a phone sex job out of her bedroom, bringing in $600 a week but growing dangerously obese because of her sedentary, hermit's lifestyle. Perhaps the oddest revelation was that June was actually a lesbian, and her girlfriend Eleanor had hung herself in one of the house's closets.
You might think a story like this of lies, drugs and alcohol, and child abuse would be impossibly dark. However, the remarkable thing about Skyhorse's memoir is his matter-of-fact, often humorous style. Although he is honest about the sometimes suicidal depression his childhood caused, he never comes across as self-pitying. Instead, he maintains a light tone through metaphors referencing favorite foods or movies. I particularly liked "the greasy nepenthean scent of pepperoni pizza," "sandwiched like a hunk of bad roast beef," and "I wanted to stick my hurt out at [Maria] like a black licorice-coated tongue."
Growing up not far from Hollywood, Skyhorse was obsessed with the cinema, especially horror movies. He and June watched ten films a month. In one of my favorite passages, Skyhorse casts actors to play his five stepfathers: "Pat: Roseanne-era John Goodman. Rudy: Present day Robin Williams. Plus thirty pounds." Skyhorse's childhood years were full of undeniable pain, but enthusiasm for storytelling and role-playing got him through middle school (when he was the "fat kid"), high school (when he "came out" as Mexican and fought Latino stereotypes), and, impressively enough, Stanford. The university gave Skyhorse, an English major, a generous package of scholarships, grants, and loans. His mother's penchant for making up stories might have been destructive, but Skyhorse's was creative: his debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, won the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction.
In a rare burst of honesty, Brando's mother did admit that Candido Ulloa was his real father (when Brando was in sixth grade), but it was not until Skyhorse was 36, that he rediscovered Candido for himself. The memoir opens with that moment of reconnection: it took just ten minutes on Google to find this man, missing from his life for over three decades even though he lived just half an hour away the whole time. Through a Spanish translator, he sent Candido a letter and later met him and his three half-sisters. Skyhorse remains unsure whether this will be a lasting relationship, but in the book's touching final anecdote, he tells how Candido set up his first e-mail account for work at age 63; instructed to set a memorable password, he chose "Brando."
This review was originally published in July 2014, and has been updated for the June 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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