(Dial, 287 pages, $22)
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s mother had a ready answer whenever her young son asked her why his father had left them. “Mahmoud went off to fight for a world socialist revolution,” she’d say. Those words didn’t explain why Saïd’s father continued to live nearby, but they did help the boy believe that the lonely, impoverished life that he and his mother shared in Pittsburgh served a greater purpose. Saïd’s Iranian father had been a graduate student new to America when his mother, a white suburban New Yorker, married him. In the 1960s, a routine sidewalk encounter with a handful of campus socialists changed their lives. Mahmoud became a traveling lecturer, his wife a Socialist Workers Party go-fer. Suffering was the way she served the cause.
One can’t help but wish that Sayrafiezadeh “had a surname that is easier to pronounce,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. The “wistful comedy” and discernment of his “finely made first book” indicate that readers everywhere should be learning to use “say-RAH-fee-ZAH-day” in conversation. When Skateboards Will Be Free is “a sad, strange ballad” about a mother and son, and how the boy gradually realizes that his parents have scrambled his worldview. The title refers to an “endearing” moment when Saïd asks his mother for a $10.99 skateboard and she replies, “Once the revolution comes, all skateboards will be free.” The heartbreak of the book arrives years later, when his mother finally realizes that “she has thrown her life away” waiting for a fairy tale to come true.
A stronger hand might have shaped this story more effectively, said Lee Thomas in the San Francisco Chronicle. Sayrafiezadeh’s weirdly “flat” tone often results in “minor and crucial details” getting “equal billing.” An anecdote in which the 4-year-old Saïd is molested by one of his mother’s party comrades cuts “abruptly” to the adult Saïd shopping for bathroom hardware. But the “coolness” of the narration is precisely what makes this memoir at once hilarious and deeply affecting, said Andrew O’Hehir in Salon.com. You might argue that Sayrafiezadeh takes revenge on his parents through comedy, were it not for the “prodigious pain” underlying each line.