Random Family tells the American outlaw saga lurking behind the headlines of gangsta glamour, gold-drenched drug dealers, and street-corner society. With an immediacy made possible only after ten years of reporting, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immerses the reader in the mind-boggling intricacies of the little-known ghetto world. She charts the tumultuous cycle of the generations, as girls become mothers, mothers become grandmothers, boys become criminals, and hope struggles against deprivation. Two romances thread through Random Family: the sexually charismatic nineteen-year-old Jessica's dizzying infatuation with a hugely successful young heroin dealer, Boy George, and fourteen-year-old Coco's first love with Jessica's little brother, Cesar, an aspiring thug. Fleeing from family problems, the young couples try to outrun their destinies. Chauffeurs whisk them to getaways in the Poconos and to nightclubs. They cruise the streets in Lamborghinis and customized James Bond cars. Jessica and Boy George ride the wild adventure between riches and ruin, while Coco and Cesar stick closer to the street, all four caught in a precarious dance between life and death. Friends get murdered; the DEA and FBI investigate Boy George's business activities; Cesar becomes a fugitive; Jessica and Coco endure homelessness, betrayal, the heartbreaking separation of prison, and throughout it all, the insidious damage of poverty. Together, then apart, the teenagers make family where they find it. Girls look for excitement and find trouble; boys, searching for adventure, join crews and prison gangs. Coco moves upstate to dodge the hazards of the Bronx; Jessica seeks solace in romance. Both find that love is theonly place to go. A gifted prose stylist and a profoundly compassionate observer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc has slipped behind the cold statistics and sensationalism surrounding inner-city life and come back with a riveting, haunting, and true urban soap opera that reveals the clenched grip of the streets. Random Family is a compulsive read and an important journalistic achievement, sure to take its place beside the classics of the genre.
Unlike most novels, however, it doesn't have a beginning and an end, or a plot; it just starts at one point (in the mid-eighties when sister and brother, Jessica and Caesar, were teenagers) and ends ten years later, when everyone is ten years older and many, many things have happened but you know many more things will just keep happening. There are other major characters and many secondary ones, sometimes hard to keep track of, boyfriends, boyfriends' other girlfriends, boyfriends' other children, the mothers and their boyfriends and the aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and friends and friends of friends and the families that get patched together in their attempts to take care of children and each other and to survive.
But there are no novelistic techniques, like setting the scenes, lengthy descriptions, no visible artfulness. It just reads like facts, facts, facts. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. However, don't be fooled: this is good writing. Here's an example:
For Jessica, love was the most interesting place to go and beauty was the ticket. She gavitated toward the enterprising boys, the boys with money, who were mostly the ones dealing drugs—purposeful boys who pushed out of the bodega's smudged doors as if they were stepping into a party . . .
I felt I got to know them, admired them for their stamina, their enterprise, their creativity and intelligence, was upset with them for their short sightedness, foolishness and their carelessness and sometimes, their cruelty, was incredulous at the hardships they endured and the fact that they did endure them, and in the end, heartbroken at their probable futures.
Although I was drawn into this world, I was also frustrated by it. Even knowing how to look at these lives from a sociological perspective, I wanted to do nothing more than grab each of the characters (I use this term meaning no disrespect to the real individuals, nor am I suggesting that they are caricatured) and tell them to use a condom, to go to school, to act in ways that would stop the vicious cycle in which they seemed trapped. My frustration was also directed at the bureaucratic and political system, which tries to help on the one hand but completely fails at it on the other. Ultimately, however, I did find there was some hope, even as my heart sank at the pronouncement of Serena's teen pregnancy. Or perhaps I need there to be hope.
Almost everyone has a rough idea of what it must be like to grow up in a ghetto environment with drugs and crime all around you, and how hard it is to get away from it. But you might think that if someone growing up there made an effort, they might be able to escape or attain a better life for themselves and their children. The author of this book did a good job of showing how hard that really is in practice. How even people who don't want to get in trouble and do everything they can to stay on the right path might get in trouble despite their efforts. Why people who decide they want to have no more kids, because they have too many already and cannot support them and care for them, end up having more kids anyway. Why it is that mothers can't keep their daughters from getting pregnant at 16, why they can't keep them in school, and why they rarely manage to hold down a job for more than a few weeks at a time.
I know, this sounds like the sort of book you want to just run out and read, right? And it really is. It's not that the description there is wrong. It's that it's too reductive. This book was engrossing, interesting, thought-provoking, and humanizing - even despite the overlay of desperation and depression that is certainly a part of it.
The story does indeed follow two women, Jessica and Coco, who live in the same neighborhood in the Bronx. The book starts out following Jessica more, and focuses more on Coco as she becomes interested in Jessica's brother, Cesar. Each of them is the product of a broken home, gets involved with criminals, has multiple kids by multiple parents, etc. That side of the story is pretty depressing, sure.
There's a lot of hope to the story, and a lot of attempt to struggle to improve, though. To make things happier for their kids, to provide a better life, to work some way out - these are the goals. Jessica and Coco, and really, everyone around them, make good choices some small amount of the time, and bad choices the rest of it, and unfortunately, it seems like you really need to make the right choice every time and have good luck to get out of the situation, and even if they know approaches - how to go homeless for a while to get better housing, how to move around to maximize your chances, etc. - the luck isn't perfect, and the ties to family are too strong to really escape.
There's a ton more to say about this book, all sorts of points to think from, about a kind of life that I've never had or probably never really could have imagined. LeBlanc's prose is clean and non-judgmental, and she had all the access she needed to tell the story properly. Not judging these people gives the book the impact it has; you can see their hopes and you can see their problems presented in an even-handed light. In the end, you feel worst for the kids, of which there are quite a lot, but then, at the outset of the story, Jessica, Coco, Jessica's brother and Coco's boyfriend Cesar, etc. were mostly kids, too.
Actually, in a sense, I feel worst for one of the secondary characters, Milagros, who was the best friend of Jessica's first baby's father. She decries relationships with men, doesn't want to have kids, and just wants to be independent, and because of the ties in the community she has, ends up with a life that she really couldn't have wanted, even if she makes a lot of the right choices for herself.
What it comes down to, then, is that this story speaks powerfully to the stickiness of poverty and its culture. There are no shortcuts out, and everything can drag you back in. The criminals have the flashy money and the easier life, it seems, but then they get sent to prison and are gone. Abuse is rampant, both physical and sexual, of children and adults, and then the victims have to live with that forever. The system set up to help them seems arbitrary, and has a hard time accommodating single mothers with multiple kids by different fathers, which almost all of these families are. Not having money means skimping on everything, but you need to look right to show poverty isn't grinding you down, so you buy the name brands and the pretty clothes and then flail for everything else. Whenever there is money, you have all sorts of ties to pay back to your family and friends - and there are all sorts of connections - and it seems gone within an instant.
This book really powerfully gets across to me the power of boredom, though. Good choices could be made more easily, but there's no access to a lot of the resources needed to fix that, and where there are, there's still awful, crushing boredom. So getting in fights is better than being bored, or hooking up with someone you shouldn't is better than just being bored, or getting high is better than just doing nothing. So many of the choices seem driven by just not having anything else apparent they can do, and that's what's ultimately the hardest to read.
So: yes, when you approach a book that seems this depressing, it can be hard, but something, there's a lot more there than the first description you hear. A lot more to make you think, and a lot more to life than just the hardships. These are real people, you can feel it, and there are real lessons to be learned. No wonder this got so many accolades. I very highly recommend this one.