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A Novel Idea

How one young writer took 12 years, two agents, two publishers, five editors, and 16 grants to produce an epic of love, violence, drugs, and homelessness that is already being hailed as a modern classic.

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No one—not her editors, her friends, her characters, or even herself—knew when, if ever, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc was going to finish her first book. Her first agent stopped returning her calls. Then her editor at Houghton Mifflin left. Two editors later, LeBlanc missed the extension of the extension of the contract, and the publisher canceled. Even to the book’s subjects in the South Bronx, it had become something of a joke; there she was, tagging along to welfare offices, emergency rooms, detention centers, homeless shelters, taking notes year after year, and yet—nada. People went to prison and served long sentences; LeBlanc was there when they were arrested, and there for their welcome- home parties. Her small book advance long exhausted, she sank into debt. The elderly mother of one of the characters asked Adrian to please, please finish the book before she died. Adrian didn’t.

At 25, Adrian could not have imagined the twelve-year odyssey she was embarking upon. She laughs ruefully, remembering the early reassurances that her first editor offered about her ability to fulfill the contract. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It will be a small book by a young reporter.”

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, published by Scribner, is anything but that. With early endorsements from Tracy Kidder, Carol Gilligan, and Richard Price, the book is a 404-page feat of reporting, as deep as it is long. It follows four Hispanic teenagers over the course of a decade, creating an astonishingly intimate and detailed miniature of life in the South Bronx that seems (a mere ten miles from midtown) as remote and mysterious as life in the Amazon. And like Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, it raises profound social questions.

“Most policy decisions and discussions of poverty and crime are by people who are utterly removed from that world,” LeBlanc says. “I wanted to find out: Who are the men and women in this world? What happens to kids when they grow up?” In the course of the decade in which she observed them, her characters fulfilled their darkest social destinies—the men go to jail; the women become young welfare mothers—with the strange inevitability of a great novel.

LeBlanc came to her story circuitously. After obtaining a master’s of Philosophy and Modern Literature from Oxford, she moved to New York in 1989, and began working as a fiction editor at Seventeen. She became interested in the trial of “Boy George,” a heroin dealer whose brand, Obsession, dominated the streets in the late eighties. What interested her the most was the idea of the teen’s wealth: At 18, Boy George was grossing more than $1 million a week, and had so many garbage bags full of cash that he had to rent an apartment in Normandy Court, on the Upper East Side, to store them.

Boy George agreed that she could write about him fully—but only if he was convicted; if he was acquitted and she had told anyone what he said, he would kill her. He was convicted, and she got a small book contract from Richard Todd, an editor at Houghton Mifflin. The details of the drug trade, however, turned out not to be as fascinating as LeBlanc had anticipated. “The business earned its reputation for violence, but plenty of people went down for foolish mistakes and capriciousness,” she writes. “Those who did well in the trade tended to be not only ruthless and calculating, but lucky. For a time, George was all three.”


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