A Novel Idea

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.”

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.

Jessica and Coco certainly don’t want their daughters to be molested—a fate that they themselves, both their mothers, and, in fact, virtually every woman in the ghetto experiences. (It’s so common that women actually state it as a reason not to have daughters.) Coco takes the precaution of having her daughters wear two pairs of underwear. But in their haphazard lives, their children end up being minded by so many other women and their various boyfriends, uncles, and stepfathers that when they are molested, it’s impossible to figure out who the perpetrators are.

Coco doesn’t want to keep having babies, butwhen she is pregnant with her third, Cesar writes toher from prison, “Coco, if it’s not a boyand I want to have another one from you, would you letme? I don’t care if I end up with 15 daughters,I’m still going to keep on. If you don’tgive me my kids I’ll have them with somebodyelse.”

George and Cesar, for their part, aren’t aiming for prison; they’re just trying to make a buck on the streets. But as one study found, 80 percent of men in New York state prisons come from just seven neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx—and one of those is Cesar’s.

“I tried to see them as they see themselves and write without judgment,” LeBlanc says. “The whole process was one of getting myself out of the way, to say: This is Coco’s life as Coco sees it.” “I know no other writer who dug in as deep,” says the writer Anne Fadiman (author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down). “She didn’t just report; she burrowed into a world so well that it lost every speck of foreignness.”

By the end of the book, Cesar joins George behind bars—for accidentally shooting his best friend. 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.

LeBlanc herself struggled with feelings of class alienation at Smith, she says. From a tight working-class Massachusetts family, she says her parents encouraged her to obtain the college education they lacked (her father is a union organizer, her mother an office worker). But although she developed close relationships with professors, “I felt a sense of constant misunderstanding when I went to Smith,” she recalls. “I was afraid of mischaracterizing the people I was writing about in the same way I felt mischaracterized. I was terrified—it felt like a big responsibility.”

The weight of that responsibility only seemed to grow heavier as years passed. “The more time I spent, the more I was aware of how little I understood them,” she says. For example, she remembers the time Coco’s younger brother had finally gotten a good job—a real job—and then abruptly quit it. The momentary boost in his self-esteem that employment had given him vanished, and he sank back into depression. When LeBlanc asked him why he’d quit, he said the daily cab fare had eaten up most of his salary. Why, she said, couldn’t he take the subway?

Many questions later, the real explanation emerged: He assumed that leaving the neighborhood by train was as dangerous as it was on foot. In his corner of the Bronx, leaving the neighborhood meant wandering into a rival posse’s territory without your own crew to back you up. “There were a million moments like that where I would realize I couldn’t make assumptions about what was going on in their heads,” she says.

Meanwhile, her own resources were dwindling. “All this time, money was a problem, and still is. People ask if I was ever tempted to help any of my characters. I say I would have loved to, but sometimes I didn’t even have gas money to get home!”

When—five years into the project—her contract was canceled for nondelivery, she had hundreds of disconnected scenes but only 75 actual pages. Through the novelist Ann Patchett, she met a new agent, Sloan Harris at ICM. He recalls reading her embryonic submission: “To read three pages is to know. There’s this amazing fondness for her characters that comes through. You find yourself empathizing with characters you otherwise wouldn’t. Of course,” he adds, as everyone does, “I had no idea it was going to be such an arduous process for her.”

Although many publishers passed on the pages, Nan Graham at Scribner immediately recognized the book within and bought it. “Adrian raises the bar on immersion journalism,” Graham says now. “Most people drop in on this kind of a world, make assumptions, and leave—the fact that she spent twelve years with these people on a daily basis shows. She has written the kind of social document that is going to outlive all of us.”

Although the $40,000 advance that Houghton Mifflin had given her was long gone, LeBlanc didn’t get more money from the new contract (the Scribner advance went to pay back Houghton Mifflin). She started having difficulty paying for her rent-stabilized railroad flat in the West Village. Patchett also introduced her to the late Gerald Freund, an older patron of the arts, who helped her get support from the Carnegie Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Whiting Foundation. She also met a philanthropist, Edwin C. Cohen, whose social-justice organization Blessing Way awarded her an arts grant. Cohen himself also gave her office space and let her stay at his house in Martha’s Vineyard. “He totally bailed me out,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t have finished without him.”

She won a Knight fellowship, which allows journalists to spend a year at Yale Law School, a Soros Media Fellowship, and a Bunting fellowship at Radcliffe. While there, she met the poet Sophie Cabot Black, who let her live nearly rent-free for two years in her farmhouse in Connecticut, which was conveniently located near Jessica’s prison. She sublet her apartment and spent long spells at writers’ colonies, at other friends’ apartments, and, one summer, in a shack in a friend’s backyard in Martha’s Vineyard. “I got lots of work done there,” she recalls wryly.

She also drifted with Coco to various apartments around the Bronx, including a spell with her at a homeless shelter. “The transitions were very hard,” she notes. “I’d find myself having panic attacks in these idyllic rural places and beginning to process all the violence and desperation.”

But the hardest transition, she says, is now. “Recently, I’ve been waking up and thinking, I’m 38; what is my life now? This book was my life for twelve years. This book is my life,” she repeats, her voice quivering.

When we take a trip to the South Bronx, Foxy—Coco’s 48-year-old mother—greets LeBlanc like family. We drive Foxy to someone’s house to pick up some money, and then to a bleak public hospital to visit a sick relative. The car conversation veers between the violent fights between a young couple (and speculation about which one will go to jail) and another relative who was recently shot in the leg. Foxy asks her about New Year’s Eve plans, and then says, “I love you,” as she gets out of the car to leave.

“I love you, too,” replies LeBlanc.

“I never would have said that when I was working on the book,” she tells me. “I would have been too self-conscious, but now I feel I can.”

Does she really want to spend New Year’s Eve with them? I wonder. Wouldn’t she rather be with her friends?

“They are my friends,” she says. She peers at me uncertainly. “Does that seem weird?” She isn’t sure what allowed her to finally finish the book. “I guess I came to a point where I was ready,” she says. Perhaps it was Boy George’s saying to her one day, as she was interviewing him for the hundredth time, “Adrian, this is old shit—I’m in prison. Get a life!”

Does she think her long presence in her characters’ lives changed them?

“You’d have to ask them,” she demurs.

“I’ve never been interrogated by anyone like Adrian, except maybe the police,” Cesar laughs during a phone call from prison. “All her questions force you to really look in yourself. She was always saying we had wild, exciting lives and she had a boring life. But to me, she had an exciting life, and we had a sad life,” he says. “I’m anxious to read it,” he adds. “I think I can handle it—I hope so.”

A Novel Idea