Fond looks back at profound dysfunction have become so commonplace, it’s a wonder there’s not a “crazy parenting” section in bookstores to help the next generation of memoirists get a leg up. At this point, crazy itself is not sufficient reason to publish. In Take This Man, Brando Skyhorse, who won a PEN/Hemingway Award for his first novel (The Madonnas of Echo Park), captures the details of his dysfunctional upbringing with note-perfect language and does so in pursuit of the truth about his family.

Skyhorse was only 3 years old when his Mexican father abandoned the family. His mother, who was also Mexican, decided to assume an American Indian identity for herself and her son. Through five stepfathers and constant upheaval, Skyhorse struggled to mold a father figure out of the con men and failures his mother brought home. While she worked as a phone sex operator, he would be dispatched to drag one man home from a bar, or taken on an outing with another where, instead of riding bumper cars at an amusement park, he was left in the car outside a housing project while undisclosed business was transacted inside. Despite the instability and verbal abuse, he clung to his mother and grandmother until college provided a means of escape. His emotional scars are just beginning to heal as he gets to know his father for the first time—and comes to grips with the realization that his mother’s claim of Native-American heritage was a fantasy.

“My mother had so much pain to share that she had to invent people to hurt,” including a kidnapped daughter and a son who died at age 3, Skyhorse writes.

This is a hard story to take in—a trip to visit the imaginary daughter leads to the revelation that his mother has placed an ad offering her young son for adoption—but it’s impossible to look away. Every hate and hurt on display here is balanced against an equally powerful love. Take This Man looks head-on at every character, including the author; it’s a brave and hopeful story.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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