The Madonnas of Echo Park

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“The border disappears, and in a finger snap we are running to cook your food, to clean your houses, to cut your grass…”

We’re each the hero of our own story. We walk the sidewalks of Echo Park, which were once dirt paths meandering between tin shacks, as jacaranda blooms “shudder” and fall and we repeat our stories under our breaths. As we tell ourselves about ourselves we unwittingly bump past our mothers, fathers, daughters, grandmothers, the Virgin, the Lord, Madonna, and maybe Morrissey. The invisibility of everyone else’s story—the existence of everyone else’s story: This is what Brando Skyhorse’s stellar new novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, is about.

The Madonnas are a group of young girls and mothers who gather weekly in front of the Los Angeles mercado featured in Madonna’s “Borderline” video. In that video, “dressed as a classic ‘Low Rider’ chola,” the real Madonna dances with a group of Hispanic kids and “refuse[s] to abandon… her chicas or her ‘hood.” For that reason, Madonna is a hero to the girls of Echo Park. As these fake-Madonnas, the authentic chicas that Madonna pretends to be, pose for a photograph in front of the store, a car slowly approaches, there is a gunshot, and a three-year-old child is killed. At the scene is a young woman named Aurora, who, according to a fictional “Author’s Note,” Brando Skyhorse insulted in the sixth grade; the novel is partly framed as a search for Aurora, but this is no metafictional detective story. Skyhorse’s control and capability as a storyteller make the story clear, compelling, and meaningful. His theme is connection, and how connections are paved over by lust, fear, jobs, divorce, age, resentment, religion, immigration status, gentrification, and taste in pop music. Above all, The Madonnas of Echo Park is about people trying to understand why their world is changing.

There is much to marvel at, beginning with Skyhorse’s excellent writing. Many of the nonchronological chapters open with lyrical prologues in the present tense, where the narrators—who change with each chapter—introduce their landscapes and worldviews:

Before the sun rises on this famished desert, stretching from the fiercest undertow in the Pacific to the steepest flint-tipped crest in the San Gabriel Mountains, the temperature drops to an icy chill, the border disappears, and in a finger snap of a blink of an eye, we are running, carried on the breath of a morning frost into hot kitchens to cook your food, waltzing across miles of tile floor to clean your houses, settling like dew on shaggy front lawns to cut your grass.

Sometimes the prose suggests that these narrators are speaking to the author; but more often these prologues function like the openings of Richard Ford’s stories in Rock Springs: as demonstrations of voice, wisdom, and insight, a way of setting the stakes before the events of the story really occur. Occasionally the self-consciousness of these prologues can grate, but more often they introduce us to one of the novel’s refreshing tendencies: The narrators believe that actions have consequences, and that their decisions matter.

Which is important. Skyhorse puts his narrators in classic moral dilemmas. Should a day laborer risk exposing his immigration status to turn in his murderous boss? During a fight on a bus in a black neighborhood, who should the Mexican anti-immigrant driver kick off: the Hispanic who started it, who would surely be beat up, or the young black man hustling Skittle packets? Facing a suicidal boss, what should a worker do? These chapters are about serious decisions—and the narrators know they are serious.

The Madonnas is labeled a novel-in-stories, but it is more a novel than discrete stories. Though they tell distinct tales, Skyhorse’s chapters rely, like a novel, on information the reader understands from what has gone before. One exception is the masterful “The Blossoms of Los Feliz,” which has a classic short story structure and uses symbolism—those “shuddering” jacaranda blooms—to illustrate emotions and idea. After the drive-by, Aurora’s mother begins working as a maid. But the house she’s hired to clean is spotless. Why has she been hired? Her search is depicted in clear prose, powerful because of what it doesn’t say:

Three of the five beds were never slept in, but I stripped and remade every one of them. The six bathrooms were the most trouble. Each had dried stalactites of vomit and blood around the rims and on the bases of the toilets. To get these clean you need to scrub and scratch with your fingertips whiles the rest of your body’s crouched in a runner’s starting hunch, motionless above.

She befriends her employer and soon learns of a possible cause for the woman’s suffering—a husband with a predilection for young Hispanic men—all while reflecting on the jacaranda bloom she believed would save her childhood home from gentrification. The end of the chapter explodes with symbolism, surprising yet inevitable, in the tradition of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and O’Connor. “The Blossoms of Los Feliz” could stand alone in any anthology of short fiction.

And yet it gains power in context. Those jacaranda blooms continue to shudder and fall throughout the novel, and Aurora’s mother shows up several more times, reminding us each time of the friendship she made and lost. There’s a pattern here: While most of these narrators couldn’t care less who they bump into on the street, the reader understands that all of these people—even those not afforded chapters of their own—have stories shot through with struggle, beauty, and redemption.

The risk with a book that depends on interlaced stories—Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is another recent example—is that characters’ relationships can seem contrived or hokey, the story subservient to the theme. Yet The Madonnas is anything but artificial. Its structure, repeated descriptions, interlocked plot elements, even that metafictional “Author’s Note,” all work to do the most important thing fiction can do: create a complex world in which readers can practice empathy.

Glenn Lester has taught at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he also earned his MFA and edited The Greensboro Review. His writing has appeared in StorySouth, The 2nd Hand, Juked, elimae, and elsewhere. He lives in Kansas City, MO. More from this author →