Random Family Summary

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Random Family

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Random Family Summary

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Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx is a narrative nonfiction study of the perils of urban life by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. The result of 10 years of research and interviews, Random Family won LeBlanc several awards including a MacArthur Fellowship. The New York Times critic Janet Maslin praises the narrative as “a book that exerts the fascination of a classic, unflinching documentary.” Her research techniques also won her a spot in Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism. The book chronicles the lives of two Puerto Rican women living in the Bronx and their extended ‘families’ as they face drugs, prison time, and love.

The narrative focuses on two young Puerto Ricans, ambitious Jessica and sweet-hearted Coco, and their dramatic lives starting in the 1980’s.

The first subject of LeBlanc’s is Jessica. Jessica has her first child at the age of 16 with her boyfriend Puma. A year and a half later, she gives birth to twins fathered by Puma’s brother, Willy. It’s around this time that Jessica becomes infatuated with successful heroin dealer and minor celebrity Boy George. She starts working for him as a mill girl and climbs her way up to becoming his mistress. Boy George buys her expensive things but is abusive toward her and her children. Eventually she lands in jail for assisting him with dealing heroin. There, she begins an affair with a prison guard whom with she has another set of twins.

Meanwhile, Jessica’s younger brother Cesar begins a relationship with Coco, who by her 15th birthday has two children with Cesar. She too gets involved with other men. Coco also has a daughter with a thug named Wishman, another with Kodak, equally disreputable, and a son with live-in boyfriend and drug dealer Frankie.  Cesar turns to a life of robbing both drug dealers and ordinary people alike, until he accidentally kills one of his friends. He then becomes a fugitive. This tangle of relationships creates a confusing family tree, but make Jessica and Coco technically sisters-in-law.

LeBlanc pays a lot of attention to Boy George, one of the most charismatic figures in the book. After running away from home at the age of 10, Boy George climbs the ladder of the local drug scene until he’s created an empire for himself. He creates a new product called ‘Obsession’ which helps him pull in half a million dollars a week, with which he buys a country home and fancy cars. He becomes something of a mogul, investing in companies and planning to open a fast-food franchise. By the time he is arrested, he is known as the Master of the Bronx Universe.

The remainder of the book tells a sprawling soap opera of Jessica and Coco’s families and transient lovers. Sex, beatings, parties, cocaine, and ex-boyfriends crowd their lives. Family members doped up on drugs show up and don’t leave, unsavory locals drop in and steal food, and Jessica finds out that she has an infection as a result of sexual abuse.

One of the qualities of Random Family most cited in reviews is LeBlanc’s ability to avoid utmost despair in her portrayal of the Bronx ghetto. Instead, she focuses on character and how, perhaps under fairer circumstances, these individuals would have made drastically different decisions. Coco is the most sympathetic character of the story, with the biggest heart, but lacks the foresight to see the ramifications of her choices and must live with crises largely of her own making. Boy George is shrewd enough not to touch the drugs he sells but is ruthless enough to quickly climb the ranks; he is sentenced to life without parole by the age of 23.

LeBlanc makes no claim that the stories she follows in the Bronx are representative of the population as a whole. Rather, these are individuals that she followed, spoke with, broke bread with, and learned about for ten years. While many of their cases appear hopeless, LeBlanc does offer a shred of light with the inclusion of welfare reform. A new law requires Coco to find work in order to qualify, and she enjoys the routine, but it doesn’t change the fact that she still has children from four different fathers to cope with.

Treading behind the statistics and offering gritty, devastating, and true stories of the South Bronx, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx is a compelling journalistic achievement. The book reads like a novel rather than a report, capturing reader’s attention with brutal honesty and fleshed-out characters. While the story does include unflinching details about life around drugs, crime, and poverty, LeBlanc maintains her focus on two girls named Jessica and Coco who despite everything continue to look for resolution, for better and worse, in romance.