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A Novel Idea


Her attention soon wandered to Jessica, George’s vivacious 20-year-old girlfriend, who was attending the trial (and later served seven years in prison herself, for having helped bag Obsession). Soon, Adrian found herself following Jessica and her friends back to the Bronx every night, after work, disappearing into nightclubs with them. “They were really fun, wild girls—calculating, operating, using sex in a conscious way,” she says. “They enjoyed dressing up and being sexy. They were such a refreshing change from the body-hating girls with complexes whose reader mail I saw at Seventeen every day. I couldn’t wait to leave work to go be with them.”

Like other homes in the South Bronx, Jessica’s mother’s apartment included a dizzyingly large and changing cast of characters—her mother’s boyfriends, siblings, half-siblings, friends, and neighbors who were evicted from their own places. Adrian was particularly interested in Jessica’s younger brother, Cesar (also known as Toney), a blossoming juvenile delinquent, and his first love, plucky 14-year-old Coco (also known as Lolli, Lollipop, and Shorty). The twin romantic relationships between Jessica and George, and Coco and Cesar, form the core of the book. The two women’s lives eerily parallel one another, and so do the two men’s, until geography and community begin to seem like destiny.

By the end of the book, Cesar joins George behind bars—serving a long sentence for accidentally shooting his best friend in a gang fight. Meanwhile, Jessica and Coco have five children apiece, by three and four men, respectively. Two of Jessica’s children’s fathers are brother thugs; the third is a prison guard, with whom she has twins. Although Coco retains her love for Cesar (even when he has a prison wedding to another woman), she gets pregnant by three other men—all drug dealers. The book ends as Jessica’s oldest daughter, Serena, has a sweet-16 party, gets pregnant, and drops out of school—just like her mother. Poverty reporting—from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men onward—is often marked by sentimentality. James Agee’s masterpiece dwells in the wondrous haze of his own imagination (a haze in which he is able to actually muse on whether a Harvard education would ruin the purity of the young sharecropper’s daughter). LeBlanc’s characters—alternatively loving, loyal, cruel, and careless—are anything but pure. Coco’s daughter Nautica’s first word is puta. Parents routinely pit children against each other to toughen them up. “They’re not churchgoing people!” LeBlanc exclaims. “They deal drugs; they commit crimes.” But the problem with their lives—she believes—isn’t lack of willpower, but poverty. “Poverty is like a tidal wave,” she writes, “knocking them down and dragging them under again and again.”

That tidal wave seems to have left all of LeBlanc’s characters shivering on the beach, huddled together in random groupings, their plans washed away. The title of the book, Random Family, gains increasing resonance throughout. Chaos—not intention—seems the dominant force in the characters’ lives.

Jessica and Coco don’t want to get pregnant at 16, but sex is the only power they feel they have. Nor do they want their children to grow up the same way they did—with the older ones having to take care of the babies while stealing formula from their bottles and refilling them with sugar water when they get too hungry. Coco doesn’t want to run out of money before the end of every month, but her welfare checks are so tight that if she makes one mistake (or succumbs to Cesar’s pressure to deposit money in his commissionary account in prison), she has to pay a visit to Delilah, the loan shark. Delilah charges a 100 percent markup for whatever she lends, and doubles the bill every week.

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