Random Family: The Bronx Is Drowning
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's amazing longitudinal history of a sprawling New York family, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, is hard to read, but even harder to put down. The sheer size and shape of the project is tough to get my head around; she must have functionally lived with these people for the better part of 15 years, and to gain their trust and keep it, then write a compelling non-fiction narrative that functions as a documentary in book form…first it seems impressive. Then it seems crazy. Then it seems impressive again. Then it seems crazy some more. It's like Hoop Dreams, but in book form and three times as long in the making.
It's also like Hoop Dreams in that LeBlanc is gentle and reserved with its treatment of its subjects. She doesn't judge, or need to; the facts and events accumulate and gather weight on their own. Her descriptions go a hair overboard in places, straining at the literary, but it's not bothersome (and I can only imagine the effort it must have taken to resist going full frontal caps-lock about various comments and situations). Most of the time, the prose is direct and evocative, refusing to hold the reader's hand or supply closure that isn't there.
I physically cringed at every bad decision Coco and Jessica make, every bit of bad luck that kiboshes an attempt to change, every relationship that sours, every windfall that gets spent on gimcracks or fast food. I didn't judge them; just the opposite — I made so many of the same illogically hopeful assumptions and took so many of the same dumb risks at that age, but I had a safety net. I had dozens of them. These people live a sawbuck's length from disaster at all times.
But then, they live. They plan, they dream, they put together a family the best they can. The thing LeBlanc does best is avoid overselling either the hope or the catastrophe; she paints a portrait of intersecting lives, and by the end, it's filled in so well that I felt like I knew them, their living rooms and their snacks.
It's not uplifting, exactly, but it's fascinating and compassionately done. Highly recommend!
Tags: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc books Steve James