Loosely anchored by a random act of violence against the “Madonnas” of the title, each chapter in Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel—really a collection of interconnected short stories—gives us a window into the life of a different resident of Los Angeles’ Echo Park. It’s a Mexican community “whose boundaries,” Skyhorse writes in a fictional author’s note, “sit on a map of Los Angeles like a busty teenage girl with scoliosis and a hooked nose.”
There’s Hector, the aging day laborer, and his ex-wife, Felicia, a house cleaner struggling with her teenage daughter. There’s Felicia’s mother, Beatriz, who, in a chapter that reads like a parable, buys coat upon coat, trying to warm her chilled heart. There’s Efren, the bus driver, who believes in the American dream with fundamentalist fervor; Angie, who treks out to a whiter neighborhood for an after-school job at Contempo Casuals; and Manny Mendoza, Jr., a gang member who, over a cheese-and-bacon-substitute sandwich, tries to talk his grown son out of joining the army. They tell their stories, their pivotal anecdotes, and then they recede, disappearing back into Skyhorse’s Echo Park. When we catch glimpses of them in other stories, it’s with a familiar sense of both sadness and satisfaction, like recognizing the back of an old friend’s head at the supermarket and moving on without speaking.
While the stories are heavy with violence, with broken promises and untimely deaths, Skyhorse avoids (albeit sometimes narrowly) the twin temptations of easy sentimentalism and hand-wringing sensationalism. In the era of Los Suns, it’s impossible to miss the political resonance of “Madonnas,” but Skyhorse’s characters stay vividly human. (That his portraits never turn into flat, ideological tools gives “Madonnas” its political power.) Still, some of the narrators are more compelling than others, and some stories transcend their “issues” more fully than others. Writing in the voice of a young, pop-culture-obsessed woman, Skyhorse seems slightly uncomfortable, the onslaught of brand names and colloquialisms betraying an uneasy self-consciousness. Embodying the exhausted Felicia, though, Skyhorse is at his best—lyrical, yes, but also simple, dark without being either humorless or hopeless.
As literature, “The Madonnas of Echo Park” is strong. As an exercise in empathy, though, it’s a tour-de-force. (Rachel Sugar)
“The Madonnas Of Echo Park”
Free Press, $23, 224 pages