The Madonnas of Echo Park
(Free Press, 2010)
There are a few reasons you should read Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonnas of Echo Park this year. Timeliness is one of them—Madonnas is partly about Mexican immigrants and illegal workers trying to make it in Los Angeles. With hands still wringing over recent immigration legislation, many readers will like having a fresh (this is Skyhorse’s first book) and authentic (he’s Mexican-American) writer to shake all this controversy through the discerning scrim of first-person fiction. Tell us what it’s like on your end, we might ask the author, and he delivers amply. Another major focus of the novel is the takeover of working-class ethnic neighborhoods by tony creative types, an issue that most Rail readers have mulled over at some point and maybe even felt guilty about. Gentrification, after all, is a collectively American tradition: seize land, slap a price on it, send the occupants packing.
“We slipped into this country like thieves,” begins Chapter One, “onto the land that once was ours.” This could have introduced an angry text, a “plight” novel about being brown/black/yellow/red in America and the great swindle of assimilation. While Madonnas certainly deals with cultural and generational border-crossing, class trouble, and other standard tenets of ethnic lit, it is not that novel. There are no soapbox lectures, no look-at-what-you’ve-done bitterness. If timeliness and social relevance don’t sell you on the book, then read it for its beautifully imperfect characters, the wise certainty of its prose, its satisfying emotional heft—the basic things we hope for when we pick up a novel.
There are nine intersecting tales here, beginning with the confessional “Author’s Note.” Each chapter features a different “I” from Echo Park, once a Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles that, to one character’s surprise after coming back from prison, is now home to the city’s hipster bourgeoisie. The stories feature a range of personalities and histories. We follow an aging day laborer who finds work on a construction site, where he’s asked to betray his fellow trabajador for cash. A cleaning woman for a wealthy white family bonds with her emotionally damaged boss, while she and her daughter struggle through a rocky relationship. A city bus driver with a perfect record breaks his code of conduct when violence breaks out on his route. Casting a long shadow over all these narratives is the fallout from a drive-by shooting, where young Aurora Esperanza, our principal heroine, and her mother are caught in the crossfire.
Novels with multiple, fractured plotlines often deny us the satisfaction of immersion—that “sinking into the story” feeling. Madonnas suffers from this, too. If we do connect with a character, we’re asked to wave goodbye at the end of the chapter and make do with brief allusions the rest of the time. Sometimes we never see the person again and wonder why his or her spiel was included in the first place. In these cases, the chapters seem ornamental, if elegantly written—meandering trails taken by characters only vaguely linked to the larger story.
But straying may be Skyhorse’s intention. The book cleverly expresses the tangled nature of multicultural identity and the physical geography of off-the-grid Echo Park, where the land changes “from rolling dirt trails into interlocking sections of houses, apartment buildings, and condos.” Lined with short-flowering jacaranda trees, which appear frequently in the story, the streets twist, intersect, and run parallel on hilly terrain. Life here, for our protagonists, is “a series of shortfalls, switchbacks, missteps, and flubbed cues, navigating a world of mazes.” Their stories are not a single progression to some tipping point and common outcome, or a neat crossing of American and foreign experience, but a morass of histories that bump into one another in the dark, and don’t always mesh together. Not quite the immigrant tale we’re used to—family arrives, struggles, overcomes—this novel is about hidden, recurring, and often irresolvable conflicts, about “life in between those two places, intimacy and invisibility.” The immigrant experience doesn’t always flow logically, in other words, and a lot of time is spent waiting in the interstices for solutions that never come.
There is hope, though. We end with Aurora’s return to the neighborhood and a search for her mother’s missing dog. She visits one of the characters we met early on, an old woman who buys hundreds of coats to warm her loveless soul and waits at a bus stop for the Virgin Mary. Their meeting is a classic convergence of new and old, of the worldly and transcendent, and, though brief, it’s a moving summary of a young and alienated generation reconnecting with a fading, numinous past. The thing about tortuous roads and confusing intersections is that we often find ourselves returning to the place where we started, even when we think we’ve left it forever. And while many of us might see this is as lack of progress or hapless water-treading, Skyhorse celebrates it as a kind of hopeful recovery. It is a return, he writes, with new knowledge, to “the land that belongs to us again.”