Wednesday, April 29, 2009

a review of When Skateboards Will Be Free

When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (The Dial Press, ISBN 978-0385340687)

In the late 1950's, on the campus of the University of Minnesota, a young Jewish woman, a college student, with dreams of being a writer, is introduced to an young Iranian man who is on the path to become a mathematics professor. Within a few years, they are married, with two young children. A nice academic path seems assured, until a fateful day when they stop to look at the literature on a table set up on campus, the table of the Socialist Worker Party. Their third child, our author Saïd, imagines what is it like that night as his parents read over the party's newspaper, The Militant, the huge change that was about to overcome them.
"Later that night, I can see then lying side by side in bed in their college housing after the children have fallen asleep, looking through The Militant together. Maybe there is a reprint of the speech that James Baldwin gave during a rent strike in Harlem. This will appeal to the English literature major. Maybe there is a photograph of the Shah standing next to a grinning Lyndon Johnson, with the caption "The Blood-stained Shah." And this will appeal to the young man who watched the tanks roll past his doorstep."
They start to attend meetings and lectures and in a short period of time, dreams of an academic future are put aside to follow the path of bringing about the Revolution. They move to New York city, and when little Saïd is only 9 months old, his father packs up and leaves Saïd and his mother...again to better work for the revolution.
"My father believes that the United States is destined one day to be engulfed in a socialist revolution. All revolutions are bloody, he says, but this one will be the bloodiest of them all. The working class-which includes me-will at some point in the not-so-distant future decide to put down the tools of out trade, pour into the streets, beat the police into submission, take over the means of production and usher in a new epoch-the final epoch- of peace and equality. This revolution is not only inevitable, it is imminent. It is not only imminent, it is quite imminent. And when the time comes, my father will lead it."
The two older children go to live with him, but it seems a wife and infant son will somehow slow down the revolution. Over the years Saïd will rarely see his father, although he is always a huge presence in the life of Saïd and his mother, the very poor life of the two.
"We were poor, mother and I, living in a world of doom and gloom, pessimism and bitterness, where storms raged and wolves scratched at the door....all of it categorical evidence against capitalism and how deserving we would be when the revolution came."
Doom and gloom pretty much sums up the stories and anecdotes that make up the rest of the book, Saïd's memoir of his life through high school and some present day dealing with his parents as a man in his 30's...oddly enough working for the huge capitalist enterprise of Martha Stewart.

Their weeks were filled with his mother taking him to rallies and marches, meetings and lectures. A parade of fellow 'comrades' marched through their lives and including some she entrusted to take him as a young boy on a tour of the socialist paradise of Cuba (the only impression it seems to have made on young Saïd is filthy toilets facilities everywhere) and some that babysat him while she was off on some party business, including one who sexually molested him. Yes, doom and gloom aplenty.

The lived in one terrible apartment after another, it seems more from principle than an actual lack of money, just as he is told they will not spend the money for the skateboard he so desires. No, they must partakes of capitalist society as little as possible. He will wait for the revolution, when all the skateboards will be free. At school, a school he must travel endlessly on buses to so he can attend a school that is a majority black, he has a few friends...until he opens his mouth and parrots the party beliefs he hears at home and at all those meetings, like during the Iranian hostage taking when he tells his classmates that the hostages were spies and "deserved whatever they got". No, that did not make him too popular. Fatherless, living hand to mouth, always the odd man was a pretty difficult childhood and we hear sad story after sad story.

And yes, oddly enough, even though their entire lives were wrapped up in the Socialist party, and all those meeting and lectures, neither he nor his mother, and perhaps even his father, don't seem to have a great grasp on the beliefs of socialism. His mother owned the complete works of Lenin and Marx, but never once read any of the books. When Saïd meets and begins dating a young woman, Karen, at work and she asks him the difference between communism and socialism, he can't actually explain it.
"Really I had no idea...Continually flaring inside me was the impulse to respond either with generalizations or various patched-together facts, or to just simply steer the conversation into familiar territory, where I could speak with authority. To do this, however, felt immoral and unforgivable in the face of Karen's authenticity. Eventually I stopped trying to answer, and muttered to myself, "I guess I don't know what I'm talking about." And she responded, more surprising than accusatory: "Yes, it sounds like you don't.""
Sadly, that sums up my feelings about this book. The Socialist Workers Party and the whole political issue that could have been very interesting, seems like just an incidental backdrop for another sad memoir about a dysfunctional childhood. A father that deserts his son, a mother, with serious issues of her own, that uses the party doctrine to guide her every decision, with no concern of the cost it is having on her child. To quote the cover description of the book, "surviving a surreal childhood in the Socialist Workers Party, Said Sayrafiezadeh has crafted an unsentimental, funny, heartbreaking memoir. Unsentimental...perhaps. Funny...not in anyway, not in even one incident I can recall. Not droll humor, not witty humor, not deadpan humor that some other reviews seem to have found. I am all about the humor, even if it is snarky humor, but no, I found none. Heartbreaking...yes, without question. But even from a good writer, and the author is quite a good writer, heartbreaking and disturbing is not enough for me to like a book that seems it may just be a young man chance to make some points about the unquestionable flaws of his parents.

If you are interested a another opinion....
Rhapsodyinbook's Weblog
Stitch and Bear

Available From Amazon


  1. I always have empathy for what the author is trying to share with novels like this. God love 'em. But there are just SO MANY of them out there, and they are tiring. It would take a really good one to inspire me to pick it up and read it.

  2. yep...I thought the political angle might set it apart from all the other sad stories out there these days...but not for me.

  3. Too bad this one didn't live up to it's potential.

  4. Love the title, it intrigued me right away. As my kids would say, this book probably needed more skateboarding.

  5. Did I ever tell you I think you write great reviews and I have trust in what you say? Well, there, I've said it. I think I'll pass on this one ... I need a bit of humor in my sad childhood memoirs.

  6. Ali...the title was the best part.

    Jenners, you have my humble and grateful thanks.
    I am just sick if these sad childhood memoirs. we get it. some of us had crappy childhoods...GET OVER IT. and yes, everything is better with some humor!!

  7. I wonder what motivated the author to write this, what he hoped to accomplish ...? I reviewed A WOLF AT THE TABLE last week, another incredible sad childhood tale (with no levity, just despair). Thanks for evaluating this one for us!

  8. In my opinion, as a reader, I think he just want to get back at his parents....and if that was the goal, perhaps he succeeded.
    I read somewhere that his father has not talked to him since the book came out, but since he rarely did before, I am not sure that is proof of anything


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