Title: Random Family
Author: Adriene Nicole LeBlanc
Genre: Literary Journalism
One Sentence Summary: For 10 years, LeBlanc followed two romances — Jessica and Boy George and Coco and Cesar — through gangs, drugs, prison, and poverty.
One Sentence Review: This book is a seminal piece of literary journalism for good reason — it is a must-read book for anyone curious about the stories behind headlines about the ghetto.
Long Summary: Jessica and Cesar are brother and sister living in a family trying to make it in the middle of a drug infested neighborhood. Coco, who lives down the block, falls in love with Cesar while staring out her living room window. Jessica, a girl who has always wanted more, gets involved with one of the neighborhoods most dangerous heroin dealers, Boy George. Both romances take a turn when Boy George is arrested and jailed for his gang activities, Jessica is convicted as an accessory, and Cesar goes to jail, leaving Coco pregnant and alone.
The rest of the story follows Jessica, Cesar, and Coco as they each try to make it through what they’ve been dealt and dealt themselves. Coco ends up the mother of more children than she can afford, finding herself homeless and trying to navigate the complex welfare system alone. The book profiles the other people in and out of these three lives to paint a portrait of ghetto life as one generation’s mistakes seem to doom the next before they even have a chance to grow up.
Long Review: Random Family is one of those seminal pieces of literary journalism that I think any serious journalist should read. It’s also an important book for anyone to read because it takes time to tell stories that often get ignored and points out how even people with the best of intentions are human. It goes deeply into the stories behind headlines, the people who get left behind, the mothers, the people caught in the middle, to show this complicated web of random chance and association.
LeBlanc doesn’t seem to get involved with her characters; despite spending 10 years with them, I always felt like she was representing them fairly. In fact, there were times when she was almost too nice to them, I wanted her to get mad or point out their mistakes or something. But LeBlanc stays out of the story, letting her character’s actions speak. But I think it’s the fact that LeBlanc doesn’t judge that makes the book so effective. It’s really, really hard to read the stream of bad decisions that Coco, Cesar, and Jessica continue to make. And every time you think of them is making progress, they’ll make a decision that sets them back. I spent the book switching between genuine concern and overwhelming frustration about what was happening.
Another really effective part of the story is the use of letters between the characters. While Cesar is in prison, he and Coco send each other a near constant stream of letters (it’s too expensive to visit, and Coco is often too poor to afford a telephone line). In this one, Cesar writes to Coco urging her to stay away from the Bronx (she’d recently moved to a suburb to try and raise her girls away from bad influences):
Try to move and stay in Albany think of the kids and stop thinking of yourself all of the time. … You had those kids for all the wrong reasons, and now you’re paying the price. I know I’m in jail for something I did, but with your selfish a** self and your selfish way of living you’ve mad things psychologically worse for my daughters and yours. I am not saying you are a bad mother. You take very good care of my kids and I will never take them away from you, but your ruining their minds. But you don’t see this because you’re too busy f***ing and having babies after babies by dudes who don’t give a f*** about you or (THEIR) kids…
Coco was the character I rooted through for the whole book, but it’s moments like this letter where I can’t help but feel as some of the despair I knew she was feeling. Cesar doesn’t really take responsibility for his actions (multiple children from at least three different women, gang activity, murder, jail), but he doesn’t give Coco the space to be responsible either. By the end of the book, Coco is living on welfare with five children to support and hardly a baby’s father in sight. Other letters help illustrate how little education any of them have, as well as how little agency they feel to make changes for themselves.
Although the details of this specific, random family is astounding, I felt like the book didn’t do enough to provide context for this story. There’s a concept in narrative nonfiction coined by, I think, Lee Gutkind, called Story/Information. Basically, a narrative nonfiction piece uses story to trick a reader into absorbing information. The writer tells story for awhile, then switches to sharing information for as long as they believe the reader will pay attention. And then, before they lose the reader with too much “boring” information, they switch back to story and grab the reader again.
This book is very, very heavily weighted to story at the expense of the information that puts Coco and Jessica and Cesar’s stories into a larger context of drug culture in the Bronx. There is a lot of information about how the prison system works, some of the welfare and service systems, but not much about where their story fits. I know a lot about this specific family, but not as much about the world they inhabit as I wish that I did.
That said, I think this book is important and should be read.
Is this a “Book of Our Time”? Yes, I think so. Poverty, drugs, and the problems of mandatory minimums are a major issue in the United States. Even without some of the broader context I craved, the book does more to illustrate the problems in this system than anything I’ve read. Coco and Cesar aren’t particularly special, but that’s exactly why this book is important – this is a story that could happen to anyone born without the opportunities so many of us enjoy.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!