The Madonnas of Echo Park
Brando Skyhorse
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Buy *The Madonnas of Echo Park* by Brando Skyhorse online

The Madonnas of Echo Park
Brando Skyhorse
Free Press
224 pages
June 2010
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Skyhorse’s debut novel seethes with emotional intensity in a ramshackle suburb of Los Angeles poised on the cusp of change as a collection of mismatched characters struggle to find their place in this evolving new world. Told in numerous voices by people living in Echo Park, the author’s quiet yet compelling prose portrays the temperaments, fears and hopes of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, each subtlety connected by geography, friends and work.

Down from the rolling jade valleys of Elysian Park, a gringo collects workers from the flatbed of his pickup truck. This business of supplying trabajadors to job sites throughout the city eventually comes to the attention of Hector, an illegal construction worker. Although Mexico may be distant memory, Hector is angry that his girlfriend, Felicia, doesn’t do more to grant him legal status in the United States.

His lies his only possessions, like a spider Hector crawls from girl to girl. Gorgeous shop assistant Christina loves “this fearless brown-skinned man,” causing Hector to skip church, cheat on his wife and abandon his child for her. As his little girl Aurora grows older, her philandering father is all but forgotten; her difficult relationship with her mother characterizes much of her teenage life. While working cleaning other peoples houses, Felicia and her daughter seem trapped in a strangled embrace, looking for some space their faith in each other can fill.

Other characters move through this small few square miles where the jacaranda trees delicately bloom: a gang member kills a the three-year-old in a drive-by shooting; a bus operator becomes embroiled in his own race war because he can’t bear to violate metro policy; a young man about to be deployed draws his father a caricature of a beautiful woman in an elegant red dress; and a hustler just released from prison tells us the only education he ever wanted is from his days living on the streets, because “you don’t get it living a straight life.”

Navigating a world of mazes, Skyhorse’s characters are a unique fusion of harmony and unrest. Passionate lovers argue over failed promises, teenage latinas base friendships on pop songs, aging women live life between the places of intimacy and invisibility, and loud, boisterous, macho mojados hang in packs on street corners of Sunset Boulevard as their homeboys disappear like puffs of smoke for life sentences behind bars. All chase their own version of the American dream - some succeeding, some failing, but with a determination to shed everything they know and love while they work in the hot kitchens and clean the houses of the wealthy white folks.

Throughout, Echo Park seems to boil and change before our very eyes, this patchwork of cottages and bungalows spread across the dry hills, blistered with junkyards and tin shacks. There are new bars and restaurants, fewer cholos, and the affluent white - and sometimes openly gay strangers - drive into this land. Skyhorse immerses us in his intimate locale, his spirited dialogue perfectly capturing the essence of these people in a vigorous and fiery recipe of mismatched feelings, the landscapes all too familiar for those of us who have walked through this world.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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