I’ve been procrastinating on this review because it’s so hard to explain why a book is great or important. But when I come across one that is I have to share it with people.... so.
This is a work of narrative nonfiction, following an extended family and their friends for about 17 years. The subjects are impoverished Puerto Rican-Americans and the setting is the Bronx (and upstate New York) from the mid-1980s through the beginning of the 21st century. Despite claims to the contrary, it does not read like a novel--novels are constructed of scenes following narrative arcs, and Random Family is built of facts and details following the vagaries of real people’s lives--but the story is as compelling as a work of fiction. It’s hard to put down even though it’s depressing.
I’ll say that again: this book is really depressing. The author keeps political opinions out of it, but essentially it’s a book about what it’s like to be poor, and why people who are born to poverty find it difficult or impossible to escape. I’m a little ashamed to admit that by the end I didn’t have much admiration for any of the principals--they make a lot of mistakes, to put it lightly; they’re terrible at relationships; worst of all, they all damage their children in serious ways, even when trying their best--but I did feel that I understood them, as much as one can simply by reading a book whose subject matter is far removed from one’s personal experience. Would I do any better if I’d grown up with everything people face in this book: neglectful, drug-addicted or simply incompetent parents, child molestation, drug dealers on every street corner, role models who were dealers themselves (if male) or single mothers in unstable and often abusive relationships (if female), overcrowded apartments with an endless parade of people crashing in the living room because they had nowhere else to go, and so on? I can’t say with any confidence that I would. What this book does magnificently is dig deep into the characters’ lives, allowing the details to build up to form a complete picture--there isn’t one simple cause for anything. Lack of money is part of the problem but the damage done by broken families and terrible societal influences can’t be ignored either, and it’s all mixed up together.
Which isn’t to say that people don’t try to improve themselves--we see that here. And to some extent they succeed. But it isn’t easy. What really struck me is how the decisions people make as teenagers have such terrible long-term consequences: even the “good” girls are getting pregnant in their mid-teens, while the boys are building up a criminal record and often landing themselves with long prison sentences to boot. In the middle-class world teenagers make bad decisions too, but parents or society tend to shield them from the worst of the consequences. The kids in this book don’t have that safety net, nor anyone who can credibly demand that they do better.
I don’t mean to say the book is all doom and gloom, because there are happy events too, but what stands out the most is just how much people who start with nothing have to struggle for the things many of us take for granted. This book puts you inside their world and makes sense of it. And it does a great job of bringing their personalities to life and of telling a fluid story, though not one with a neat beginning or end. The writing flows smoothly and the descriptions bring people and places to life in a few words. It’s all told in a neutral, non-judgmental tone, the author clearly working to present her subjects to us on their own terms, without value judgments. And she succeeds at it.
The author’s complete absence from the book is weird, especially since she states in the acknowledgements that she was present for most of the scenes recorded--surely, for her to be included in these events and convince people to open up to her to the extent that they did, she must have become an important person in their lives? But while it may not be entirely honest, I understand the purpose of erasing herself from the narrative: the point is not to filter her subjects through privileged eyes or distract us with her opinions but to present the stories that matter here as directly as possible.
So, this an important book, one you should certainly read if you work with impoverished people (I know I’ve met women like Coco), or, you know, vote, or have opinions about social programs. Or if you just live in the U.S. Almost everybody who didn’t grow up in this kind of situation would likely benefit from such an intimate, detailed look into the lives of people who weren’t born with the privileges we take for granted. I certainly did.