Random family : love, drugs, trouble, and coming of age in the Bronx

by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Paper Book, 2003




New York : Scribner, c2003.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member stomps
A very engaging but very disturbing book at the same time. I couldn't put it down--which normally doesn't happen when you're backpacking!--and found myself completely engrossed in the stories of Jessica, Cesar, and Coco. I often found myself wishing that there was something I could do to help, even though I clearly could not. The only reason I didn't give it a higher rating is because I found the writing style a bit annoying at times--quotes that finished with "Coco said" and the like really stood out and pulled me out of the story; I would have preferred if everything was more integrated into the story rather than the author inserting herself into the action subtly (even though I know that wasn't her intention).… (more)
LibraryThing member marysargent
A remarkable book. Nonfiction that reads like a novel about Latinos growing up in the Bronx, written by a reporter who hung out with them for over ten years, people who, she says "opened their lives" to her. However, she is never a presence in the telling of these events, there is no "I" narrator.

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.
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LibraryThing member gillis.sarah
I had to read this book for a class I took during my first year of college. I didn't expect to like it at first, but then I began to read and couldn't put the book down. The author spent years living among the subjects of this book and gathering research for it and it shows. The book is detailed, comprehensive, and manages to bring the reader as close to the reality of the characters' lives as possible. It is heart-wrenching, and it manages to raise some great and interesting questions about our country's economy and policies. I finished this book with a new perspective on class in America, and an interest to learn more.… (more)
LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
loved this book. heartbreaking. great insight into the life of families in the Bronx. i would recommend this to anyone who likes gritty non fiction.
LibraryThing member lizusa4444
I loved this book - it is so rich with detail that one becomes compelled to find out more about the main characters. Should be mandatory reading for any sociology class dealing with social issues like poverty, teen pregnancy, drug use, absentee fathers,
LibraryThing member bellakt2
This book was heartbreaking and amazing. Definitely a must read.
LibraryThing member carmarie
I found that this book made me really happy. Happy that I wasn't any of these people or their children. I know it was a biography of there lives and that part I found fascinating, but did anyone learn anything? DId anyone come out with any knowledge? Not that I know of, and I would really be intrigued to see what happens to the children and how they grow up, or a where are they now thing. It mainly seemed to be the same sad story over and over again.… (more)
LibraryThing member gsatell
Interesting book. It gets kind of repetitive and drags on...but I guess that's part of the point.
LibraryThing member turbojenn
gripping, horrifying and desperately sad.
LibraryThing member JenLynnKnox
Not exactly what I expected from the reviews, but its a good story.
LibraryThing member LadyHax
Initially, I had difficulty getting into this book. The style, at the very beginning, was bare reportage. It felt like I was being hit with a barrage of names and events, with no analysis and narrative (as I would expect from this kind of non-fiction). But I was pulled into the lives of these people, and LeBlanc actually teases out the nuances of their lives more and more as the book progresses, and she lapses into greater poetry and analysis as the mounting experiences of the characters force an acknowledgement and investigation of the complexity of the social milieu in which they exist.

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.
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LibraryThing member TanyaTomato
True stories of growing up in the Bronx. The culture is so different it was hard to relate, but interesting to read about.
LibraryThing member kipp15
stark, realistic, true rendering of inner ciyty drug kifr
LibraryThing member goldiebear
This book fascinated me. It took me a very long time to read, because it was so intense. I like the author's style of writing by the fact that she referred to everyone by name and not pronouns. Because there are so many players in the book I know I would be utterly confused if she didn't state people's names. This book is a true family saga, even though it reads like fiction. I am glad LeBlanc chose to write it this way, instead of first person. I think it makes it more credible in a way. LeBlanc dedicated something like 12 years of her life working on this book and immersing herself with these people. It's amazing to think about. It shines a lot of light on the social service system in New York. I would like to say this book made book made me sad or angry -- but it didn't. I am very interested in social work as a profession and this book made me feel even more passionate about it.… (more)
LibraryThing member everly
One of the saddest books I've ever read.
LibraryThing member Edith1
Interesting book, highly readable in an almost gossipy way, about a (very) extended family in the Bronx, and their neighbors and other entourage. Poor people all, not very well educated, and mostly reliant on each other and on welfare to survive. The author followed these people for eleven years, and wrote a book describing in quite extraordinary detail how their lives develop during those years.

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.
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LibraryThing member Capfox
How do you approach reading a book that you expect to be really depressing? Let me give you an example: this book, Random Family, was pitched to me as a non-fiction tale following two women over the course of a generation, from when they're teenagers through when their kids are teenagers, living in the Bronx and then in upstate New York, in poverty, and shows their attempts and ultimate failures to break out of the situation they find themselves in.

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.
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LibraryThing member PamelaReads
A true story of poverty, addiction, babies having babies, and the vicious cycle that all of this perpetuated for a couple of families in the Bronx during the ‘80s. Although the book focused on two families, this was basically an ethnographic study that could have been dissected from any project in North America, at any time in the last five or six decades.… (more)
LibraryThing member jessicahandler
Literary nonfiction of the first order.
LibraryThing member allison.sivak
I read this right after The Warmth of Other Suns, and so I found the voice to be less personal and warm and out-front than in that book.
LibraryThing member satyridae
Riveting portrait of a family in the Bronx ghetto where they live. The author became part of this family for 10 years, and her immersion gives this book a verisimilitude that is often lacking in less well-researched books I've read. It was a difficult read but a fascinating one.
LibraryThing member deldevries
well written, but I'm just not interested in the story and the characters (people). This doesn't fit my criteria for one of the 100 New Classics.
LibraryThing member bookwormteri
Heartbreaking and fascinating. How much drug culture pervades some inner cities and affects every aspect of life. I can't believe that these girls have so many kids and so young and so little education to be prepared for anything. It's just sad. But a great read.
LibraryThing member jasonli
A surprisingly-thrilling and superbly-researched real-life story about a family, struggling to grow, struggling to get by in the roughest parts of New York during the 80s and 90s.
LibraryThing member mjlivi
An incredible portrait of the joint impacts of poverty and the drug war in the US. The author walks a fine line between journalism and voyeurism at times, but the simple act of telling the in-depth stories of these families making ends meet is tremendously confronting and powerful. And, to be honest, a bit dispiriting.


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