A review by geckoedit
My Father's Guitar and Other Imaginary Things by Joseph Skibell


Award-winning novelist Joseph Skibell explores memory, the creation of a kind of family mythology, and the strange little coincidences of everyday life in this collection of nonfiction short stories. From the time he found Paul McCartney’s phone number, to the mystery of a painting that may be worth millions, or may be by his cousin Jerry, to the strange uncle whose failed money-making schemes fill a barn, they spin the story of a Jewish American family of weirdos, living mostly in Texas.

He could never find a place for himself within human society. His appetites were too large; his touch too fierce, his dreams burned too brightly in the furnace of his brain.

The stories range from amusing, to disturbing, as the author tries to answer questions of the validity of memory, and how two people might remember the same incident in different ways. He explores how language changes the perception of memory, or how the apparent coincidences may be significant to one person and completely false to another. Some of the stories make Skibell look foolish; this is endearing, as he comes across as somewhat self-deprecating rather than narcissistic (as his grade school teacher may have thought him).

When you’re a child, because you’ve basically just been dropped into it, you imagine that the world you know is permanent. The adults are like mountains and rivers: part of the landscape. You can’t imagine they were ever different from how you first encountered them, you can’t imagine they were ever young once or trim or unmarried.

At first I found the stories to be somewhat unimpressive. They’re ordinary stories about ordinary people, and I wondered what made them so special – why was it worth reading about them? However, as the stories come together, the distinction between reality and false memory becomes confusing, and soon it is gone completely. Skibell makes you accept that you can’t always know the truth, and that sometimes coincidences are more than mere random patterns of occurrence. His cast of weirdoes, from his bossy sisters who run his life (and appear to have selective amnesia when it suits them) to his hilariously nonsensical uncle Tiger, to the con man who refuses to get out of his car, are the juicy core of the book.

The place was like a Sandplay therapist’s toybox, filled with Jungian archetypes: artists, swamis, gurus, cowboys, Indians, satyrs. I knew a woman who lived in a chicken coop with her three young children. I knew a guy who played his wooden flute all day by the Rio Grande. Victor, a white-haired poet, sold his poems out of a little box under the eaves of the plaza, while Miles, a silent guy with a blond Prince Valiant haircut, practiced tai chi with a wooden sword every morning in the plaza’s gazebo, his muscular thighs bulging in tight tight shorts, no matter how cold it was. Everything in Taos was slightly askew. There was even a mime called Klein the Mime who talked during his act.

Skibell’s humor is on point. However, I found that beyond the jokes, the weird characters, the strange coincidences and the unreliability of the narrator’s memory, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of substance to the stories. At times I was a little bored.

I’m aware of the dangers of naiveté. Still, I’ve begun to think that innocence is too often undersold. Yes, children must grow up, but no one wants his kid to be scorched by the fires of Love and Sex and by their ever-present handmaidens, Rejection and Betrayal.

When it comes down to it, this is a respectable attempt from a skillful writer. His background in fiction means he knows how to put a good story together, and the characters were memorable and generally entertaining. The exploration of the reliability of memory is an interesting one. However, some parts of the book fell flat and I found myself skimming sections as the point was a little lost on me.

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