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The Washington Post Company
Numb With Pain
By John L. Jackson Jr.
February 12, 2003
Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Scribner. 408 pp. $25
The unrelenting prose of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's powerful new book, "Random Family," might be described as something like the literary equivalent of a 100-mile dash. Sure, completing such a Herculean undertaking might prove one's superhuman might and athletic prowess, but by the end, the runner is left either dead from overexertion or collapsed into a fleshy heap -- bones broken, body trembling, breath evacuated. LeBlanc sets such a grueling pace for her intergenerational tale of drug dealing, familial dysfunction and urban criminality that she leaves her readers gasping for air with every turn of the page. Only, "Random Family" allows no time to breathe.
Based on some 10 years of investigative research among Latino families in the South Bronx, "Random Family" is a Jerry Springer-ish account of unwed mothers and the drug dealers who love them. There's Boy George and Jessica. He plays the role of local drug kingpin -- buying groceries for the needy, mentoring youngsters in the ways of the world and controlling a lucrative drug operation that finally ends up landing him behind bars. She plays the dealer's leading lady -- having his baby, taking his cruel physical abuse and even tattooing "property of George" on her rear as proof of her continued fidelity after he gets locked up. Cesar, Jessica's little brother, and Coco play out a very similar relational trajectory, one that starts with delightful courting rituals but devolves into prison-based paranoia.
Along the way, LeBlanc traces the outline of a social world where dealers don't simply sell drugs but also offer companionship, employment, shelter and security to many members of their community. It is this dichotomy between savior and scoundrel that bifurcates the psyches of all of LeBlanc's very human characters. Boy George can be extremely compassionate and well-meaning when he tries to persuade Cesar to wash his hands of the drug trade, but he can also get demonically brutal when he wants to hurt Jessica and teach her a lesson about obedience. Likewise, Jessica can be faithful to her boyfriend when she rebuffs Mike Tyson's romantic pass in a courtroom lobby, but she can also make spitefully bad decisions in her position as last-line-of-defense for Boy George's million-dollar drug cartel.
LeBlanc makes it clear that these are people who have love in their hearts for one another, but they are also looking for the next best thing -- for any genuinely good thing on the cold, hard streets of the city. For the book's male characters, this never-ending search means juggling several sexual partners scattered throughout the city -- and even as far away as Puerto Rico. The book's female characters aren't necessarily any more monogamous. Coco sincerely cares for Cesar, but she still ends up having a baby with an old flame while Cesar is in jail. After hearing of her pregnancy, Cesar writes Coco from his cell to say that he can't even close his eyes at night for fear of picturing her in bed with another man. The image enrages him. "I hate you more than I hate the people who I shot to get in here in the first place," Cesar writes. "I hate you more than I love my mother."
Even though it is a work of nonfiction, "Random Family" reads more like a carefully crafted novel than journalism, which explains my desire to call the people it depicts characters rather than anything more scientific- or journalistic-sounding, like subjects or informants. This is part of the readerly effect LeBlanc wants to achieve. She gives us an intimate portrait of these people's everyday lives at the most micro level. Her decision allows for powerful, even heart-wrenching, storytelling, but it also mandates that she eschew any substantive discussion of the macro-structural forces (deindustrialization, suburbanization, institutionalized social inequalities, international market forces, revitalizing empowerment zone regulations, etc.) that provide important contextual clues for making sense of places like the South Bronx, places that seem to become hothouses for illicit underground economies and the overly fragile social relationships they spawn.
Each paragraph in "Random Family" seems rife with almost a lifetime's worth of change. Characters are getting killed, beaten, locked up and otherwise thwarted at every turn. Inundated by such misfortune, the reader finds his eyes beginning to glaze over with all the sadly intricate specificities of these tragic lives. Moreover, we almost know where LeBlanc is taking us before we get there. We don't know the details, and her characters provide a vividly poignant language to narrate our journey, but we do know how things will end. And it won't be in that fairy-tale land of happily-ever-afters. Yet the voyeurs in us want to travel on, so LeBlanc obliges. And she has so many things to chronicle in these fast 400 pages -- a decade of impressively rich and personal ethnographic research is a long time to cover -- that she demands we keep up.
LeBlanc may not be leading a 100-mile sprint, but her "Random Family" is definitely a 10-year hike of a read -- and every step is exhausting, debilitating, draining. If it doesn't kill us, it will hopefully make us stronger.