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'My Father's Guitar' Plays On Perception And Memory

I'm a sucker for charming personal essays, those seemingly casual, anecdotal confessionals in which writers essentially dine out on themselves. My favorites (Nora Ephron, David Sedaris) make light of their own foibles and shortcomings (a sagging neck, an inability to master a foreign language) in ways that both reassure their similarly challenged readers and highlight what's really important.

Joseph Skibell, who grew up in a tight-knit Jewish family in Lubbock, Texas, approaches the personal essay from a somewhat different angle. A novelist and professor of creative writing whose first ambition was playwriting, he's a storyteller first and foremost. But he's also a bit of a wise shaman sharing his gently amusing, offbeat life lessons. There's something unusually endearing and sweet about the 16 "true stories" in My Father's Guitar and Other Imaginary Things. Many focus on family — including several of his father's eccentric cousins — and on the rub between perception, memory and reality.

In his wildly inventive novels, Skibell has straddled the line between fact and fiction, writing about a fictional version of his great-grandfather Chaim Skibelski in A Blessing on the Moon, and numerous historical figures including Sigmund Freud in A Curable Romantic. In My Father's Guitar, his first book of nonfiction, he sticks to the truth, but he comments, "though these stories are all true, they're filled — as our lives are filled — with imaginary things."

A prime example is the guitar of the title story. After surviving a near-fatal hospitalization, Skibell's 76-year-old father delights him by announcing that he wants to take up the guitar. On his subsequent visit, Skibell writes, "when I took a turn on Dad's new guitar, I remember thinking, Man, this is a beautiful instrument!" Although he loves his own portable "broom-shaped" Martin Backpacker, he fantasizes about his father's curvy new "dreadnought." Then, on his very next visit, his father, discouraged by arthritis, urges him to take it. But Skibell is shocked to discover that "It wasn't the guitar I remembered at all, the one shaped like an infinity sign with the nutty brown color ... It was nothing but a cheap blonde Alvarez!"

What gives? A "laughably Freudian" explanation for the imaginary guitar finally occurs to him years later, after his father's death. But what occurs to us is this subtext: His father, a laced-up, practical businessman, didn't appreciate quality when it came to guitars or indeed most artistic endeavors. This was painfully apparent in his discouraging attitude toward his son's literary aspirations, which echoed his disdain for the artsy careers of his unconventional cousins, who went into acting and filmmaking. In his father's opinion, Skibell writes, "They lived children's lives, lives without heft, without weight, without burden or responsibility." But in Skibell's opinion, his father's life was overburdened by responsibility. He revisits the so-called ne'er-do-wells in several stories to explore the reality behind the prejudices.

Misconceptions factor into many of these tales. He describes his first — and nearly last — date with his wife, who put him off by going on and on about the ghosts in her Taos house. Typically, he moves from whimsy to weightiness, as when he turns the tables on telemarketers by asking them to fund a purported project involving the international language of Esperanto. He comments wryly, "This changed the entire dynamic of the situation." Pages later, he concludes on a more serious note — which isn't entirely earned by the story: "We do need a new way of speaking to each other. But a universal language isn't enough. It's our hearts that must answer the call."

Skibell's heart answers lots of calls. He's drawn to coincidences, mysteries, uncertainties and fantasies about winning one of life's golden tickets. He is incredibly open, even to possible scammers. This includes the woman in the wonderfully layered story, "Ten Faces," who spins an involved, dubious saga about the Holocaust-related provenance of a painting she thinks is valuable and might be by one of his relatives. (She's right on one count only.)

"I tend to listen politely to stranger's stories," he writes. "You never know when you might hear something you can use in your work."

As My Father's Guitar makes clear, Skibell lets little go to waste.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.