Brando Skyhorse is a man blessed with a name and a half — and in his new memoir, Take This Man, he explores the very roots of that impossible-sounding handle. It turns out Skyhorse would find out that he was Mexican when he was about 12 or 13 years old, and that the name “Brando Skyhorse” was a gift of sorts from his Mexican-American mother.
Let me explain. Skyhorse, who won the Pen/Hemingway Award in 2011 for his debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, was born Brando Kelly Ulloa to his Mexican-American mother and his immigrant father. Skyhorse’s father, Candido, would abandon the family when the boy was three years old.
This was the start of Skyhorse’s search for a father. In the oncoming years, his mother Maria would cycle through a series of men, with five of them taking the role of father in Skyhorse’s life at various points. “I was father rich but family poor,” he writes. “Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First I was forced to accept them, then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them. Then they left.”
As Skyhorse tried on fathers, his mother tried on identity after identity. Maria called herself Running Deer, a full-blooded Indian, and placed classified ads, looking for: “a good Indian father and devoted husband.” One Paul Johnson, an American Indian who was incarcerated for robbing banks, wrote back to her. Together, these two adults took on the new name Skyhorse, bestowing it upon young Brando. Confusing, yes? But evocative and slippery as well. And yet, Paul was not an official father. He was incarcerated. The core of Skyhorse’s family — his mother and grandmother — raised the young boy in a small house in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood. Maria, née Running Deer, would take up with Frank, a man who would prove to be the most solid father in Brando’s life.
The memoir follows Skyhorse through his childhood and his college years, as his family goes through father after father and he gives his soft heart to a series of men in hard positions. Skyhorse doesn’t flinch when talking about his complicated life. He quotes his mother, often: “At least it’s never boring.”
It isn’t boring. It’s a moving and poignant search for identity under impossible circumstances, and by the time Skyhorse searches for the truth about his biological father, the results are powerful. I sobbed through the final section. Part of that power comes from Skyhorse’s understanding of narrative, his novelist’s eye: “Narrative is breath… From the breath my grandmother gave me to the breath it takes for you to read this sentence, stories sustain us. They carry us through the lives we convince ourselves we can’t escape to get to the lives we out or need to live instead.”
Thanks to the chaos of his first 40 years, Skyhorse is still stuck between two lives and two cultures. But perhaps the writing and truth-telling from this memoir will set him free. One ends Take This Man rooting for Skyhorse, hoping that he can take all these stories and turn them into something worthwhile. This book is certainly a start.