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Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx Hardcover – January 28, 2003
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
From Publishers Weekly
Politicians rail about welfare queens, crack babies and deadbeat dads, but what do they know about the real struggle it takes to survive being poor? Journalist LeBlanc spent some 10 years researching and interviewing one extended family-mother Lourdes, daughter Jessica, daughter-in-law Coco and all their boyfriends, children and in-laws-from the Bronx to Troy, N.Y., in and out of public housing, emergency rooms, prisons and courtrooms. LeBlanc's close listening produced this extraordinary book, a rare look at the world from the subjects' point of view. Readers learn that prison is just an extension of the neighborhood, a place most men enter and a rare few leave. They learn the realities of welfare: the myriad of misdemeanors that trigger reduction or termination of benefits, only compounding a desperate situation. They see teenaged drug dealers with incredible organizational and financial skills, 13-year-old girls having babies to keep their boyfriends interested, older women reminiscing about the "heavenly time" they spent in a public hospital's psychiatric ward and incarcerated men who find life's first peace and quiet in solitary confinement. More than anything, LeBlanc shows how demanding poverty is. Her prose is plain and unsentimental, blessedly jargon-free, and includidng street talk only when one of her subjects wants to "conversate." This fine work deserves attention from policy makers and general readers alike.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Journalist LeBlanc spent more than 10 years following two Latina women from the Bronx, and in this ambitious work, she tells their stories, beginning in the late 1980s with their young teen years. Older Jessica becomes a mistress to an enormously successful heroin dealer, and Coco falls for Jessica's brother, an aspiring gangster. The two women find love, weather abuse, have babies, endure their own and their partners' prison terms, and struggle with health problems, social systems, motherhood, their own mothers, the violence of their communities, and the uncertain future. LeBlanc's prose is sprawling and dense with cinematic detail--what people wore, ate, drove, listened to; where they lived; what they said--and she studiously removes herself from the story, letting her characters' day-to-day lives unfold in scenes that are both gripping and mundane and, like life, defy easy organization. What emerges is an important, unvarnished portrait of people living in deep urban poverty, beyond the statistics, hip-hop glamour, and stereotypes. Gillian Engberg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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As I've noted, "Random Family" is a compelling read. There are, however, a couple of things that make me uneasy about this "instant classic" (the book was first published in 2003).
"Random Family" is presented as non-fiction, but of course there is no way to be sure how accurately reality is depicted. This is always a difficult issue, but particularly troublesome here. Author Leblanc states in her end note that "Random Family" is a "book of nonfiction. I was present for much of what is depicted...." She also says that she relied on hundreds of hours of written and taped reviews, and that descriptions of experiences and exchanges were confirmed through primary and secondary interviews.
This all sounds authoritative, and I'm not necessarily accusing Leblanc of intentional mendacity, but of course the reader has no practical way to audit her source material. Even granting her 100% accuracy of recall and transcription there are still a couple of points worth noting.
She says that (a) this is a work of non-fiction; (b) she (the author) was present at many of the scenes described; and (c) the author does not in fact appear in any of these scenes. Alas, this is a contradiction on its face.
There is an elegiac quality to some of the reminiscing she transcribes in terms of things like the attractiveness of men and women, the wealth of drug dealers, and so on. How much of this is gilding the memories, a natural thing for people to do when they talk about their pasts?
I am also disturbed by the narrative tone of the book. It partially sounds like anthropology, but in fact at best is nonfiction reportage. The anthropological tone---almost like Margaret Meade or Oscar Lewis's Mexico studies---tends to manipulate the reader to put aside normal skepticism, and also to regard the characters in the book as quaint "subjects"---rather than the sign of the failure of our society and culture that they are. This is voyeurism, plain and simple.
"Random Family" features third-person omniscient narrative---the narrator is apparently all-seeing and all-knowing. Every time this narrative (outside of dialog and memories) slipped in the demotic argot of the characters in the book---for example, "broke night" is a standard phrase used in the book to describe staying up all night---I was jarred.
In the end, this is a compelling book and a great read that left me sad for the waste of lives and human talent that it describes, and also with some doubts about the tone and substance of the narration.
Review © Harold Davis