Jo Ann Heydron is Contributing Editor for Cheek Teeth.
When Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble,and Coming of Age in the Bronx was published in 2003, I missed it. I was busy teaching at a community college in east San Jose. The war in Iraq had just begun. Right-wing Presbyterians accused the pastor of my church in Palo Alto of heresy. My husband and I were separated.
I tell you these things so you’ll know something—not much, but something—about who’s writing this, through whose eyes you will see what follows. Many readers seem to prefer this to encountering an author knowable only by induction. Maybe reader preferences have changed since 2003. Or maybe Adrian Nicole LeBlanc had aesthetic or moral reasons for deciding not to clutter her narrative with an “I.” At any rate, her 400-page account of several interconnected, largely Puerto Rican-American households leaves its author out, except insofar as a writer is always present, uncovering and selecting the contents of a story, telling it, and laboring—for eleven years in LeBlanc’s case—to get the telling right.
She gets it exactly right, giving us a world both novelistic and true, of telling detail, narrative drive, dialogue, characters’ thoughts, scenes from a way of life most of us would never otherwise encounter, spare observations, and rare insights. She prepared to do this by spending long hours with her characters in their homes, in prison visiting rooms, at medical and social service appointments, in emergency rooms and in court, by reading their letters and diaries, transcribing government wiretaps and researching official records. “In those cases where someone is said to have ‘thought’ or ‘believed’ something, those thoughts and beliefs were recounted to me by that person,” says LeBlanc in her two-page Author’s Note at the book’s end. “There are no conflated events or composite characters in this book. Only the names of some individuals have been changed.”
LeBlanc entered the world she depicts in the mid-eighties while reporting for Rolling Stone on the trial of Boy George, a 22-year-old, fabulously rich drug dealer in the Bronx. She might have produced a book that resembled the Barksdale family episodes of The Wire, focusing on the male-run business of drug dealing, but she concentrated instead on the lives of women. Two in particular figure centrally, one of George’s girlfriends, Jessica, nineteen when George met her and already the mother of three, and fourteen-year-old Coco, girlfriend to Jessica’s brother Cesar and soon the mother of his child. Boy George, Cesar, and Jessica spend much of the decade the book covers in prison, but Coco remains outside, living first in the Bronx and later in upstate New York. Here is Coco just before she meets Cesar for the first time:
“Coco was looking for distraction—anything but the same people doing the same old things. She wasn’t a church girl and she wasn’t much of a schoolgirl, either, but she wasn’t raised by the street. She was a friendly around-the-way girl who fancied herself tougher than she could ever be… Boys called her Shorty because she was short, and Lollipop because she tucked lollipops in the topknot of her ponytail; her teacher called her Motor Mouth because she talked a lot. Coco’s friendly face held the look of anticipation even in repose.”
The distraction Coco searches for—from hunger, crowded quarters, vermin, violence, and molestation—takes a more potent form than heroin or crack. Both she and Jessica bet their futures on love. Coco bears two of Cesar’s children and three to other fathers, tolerating their beatings, defections, and shaming to wrest from them support for her children and to find some release for herself. Beautiful Jessica, hoping to be the princess bride of faithless George, goes to prison for the tiny role she plays in his drug business. Grandmothers are too busy pursuing their own love-as-distraction to stand in as parents. In their grandmothers’ homes, Jessica and Coco’s daughters are molested, just as Jessica and Coco were when they were children.
There’s a great deal to learn from this book about the way public housing, Medicaid, courts, and prisons work. We see as well how much good relatively minor help, such as sending city-bound children to summer camp, can do, and how much more good could be done if help were consistent and long lasting. My own main reaction (here I am again) was wonder—at how much a human being can suffer and still remain hopeful.
Coco makes progress, only to have the rug pulled out from under her when a boyfriend deals drugs out of her home, a child’s illness makes it impossible to hold a job, when she dips into her inadequate funds to help others, a car dies, her family is evicted, one of her children is cruel to her, or when a new man brings more chaos into her life. After the birth of her fifth child, Coco:
“…finally got her tubes tied. Then her grandmother passed away after almost a year in the hospital. For the first time, Coco debated whether she should make the journey home [from Troy, New York to the Bronx] for an important family occasion. The practical dilemma—whether the car she had bought with her tax refund would get them to the wake—got tangled with the eternal one: choosing what was best for her and the children, or trying to help her family. She didn’t have enough money to get there and contribute to the collection for her grandmother’s funeral costs, but then Frankie [her current boyfriend] surprised her. Unasked, he filled the tank with gas and handed her $200. Coco suspected he wanted her away for some reason, but she didn’t interrogate him.”
Prison isn’t kind to Jessica, but the men fare a little better. Cesar and George struggle mightily at first, pitting their many women on the outside against each other to feed their own sense of importance, but eventually they settle down to review their past and consider their options.
James Agee, who described the world of white tenant farmers in 1930s Alabama in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, said of that nonfiction project, “In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you and I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact.” Agee’s book is very different than LeBlanc’s, not least in Agee’s frequent reference to his own reactions and ideas, his many “I” statements, but LeBlanc’s book carries the same kind of gravitas as Agee’s and should last as long.