Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.1 (2005) 185-186
[Access article in PDF]
Why is it that life's most unpleasant circumstances—illness, bereavement, poverty, and war, to name but a few—often make great reading? Perhaps it's because tragedy (especially someone else's tragedy) has always made compelling drama, as the ancient Greeks knew so well. Here are two books that take up this paradox of pleasure via pain: one tacitly, one directly.
Random Family is the story of a sprawling Bronx clan that LeBlanc followed for ten years. It focuses on two Puerto Rican girls, Jessica and Coco, and the boy who connects them, Cesar, the former's brother, the latter's boyfriend. Coco falls in love with Cesar, visits him in prison, moves into a shelter and then upstate, all while struggling to raise their daughter and make ends meet. Jessica becomes a mother, goes to prison for a boyfriend's crimes, is released, and begins her life again. Dozens of sub-characters crop [End Page 185] up, yet the plot doesn't become confusing—perhaps because LeBlanc uses the simplest sentences and concentrates on story:
Jessica was good at attracting boys, but less good at holding on to them. She fell in love hard and fast. She desperately wanted to be somebody's real girlfriend, but she always ended up the other girl, the mistress. . . .
The reporting is so fine it verges on transparent. LeBlanc has the keen moral vision shown by great novelists: Though acutely aware of her character's faults, she remains sympathetic. Indeed, Random Family's achievement is that it presents poor people without labels or formulas. This book could have easily been about poverty or prison—about suffering. Instead, it's about people living their lives—lives that are more about survival than tragedy. It will appeal to anyone with a sociological turn of mind, who wonders about the worlds hidden in crooked old apartment buildings. Despite the challenges faced by the characters, Random Family was paradoxically an encouraging read for me as a writer, simply because LeBlanc has created a fresh, plot-driven style in her very first book.