Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Random Family

I don’t usually like being chucked into a book, and I spent the first few chapters of Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s ambitious, saga-esque work of non-fiction, wondering why LeBlanc hadn’t written an introduction. She doesn’t interpret; she doesn’t try to inform beyond the lives of her characters. She doesn’t examine the system directly; she doesn’t give background information about laws, or neighborhoods, or people, or policies. She just throws you right into it: the daily ups and downs of life in the Bronx for an everyday teen. The story starts with the beautiful Jessica, so young and already months away from getting pregnant with the first of five children. From there, the story skitters and jolts from character to character: the wild, drug-using Lourdes, Jessica's mother, and her crazy brother, twelve and already out on the streets, breaking night. There's no pause, no situating. The narrator is invisible, unknown.

But after a while, I started to get it. This is immersion journalism; these are LeBlanc's characters’ lives. In Random Family, the struggles of half a dozen poor New York City teenagers are chronicled with grace and honesty. These kids – adults, really, because kids in the ghetto grow up at age five – were raised by the street, and they’re rugged and clever. The men deal drugs and the women have babies. A lot of the characters, men and women both, get arrested and go to jail; they get beaten and recover. They get kicked out of their moms’ houses. Their moms become grandmothers at thirty. Their babies get molested as toddlers. The book breaks your heart, and it makes you gasp, exasperated, at all the little mistakes – mistakes the system facilitates. All the little choices that make life harder, and all the little things that compound bad choices: no time or money for birth control, quick and expensive loans, abundant cigarettes, booze, and weed - and worse. A shitty transport system means a shitty life if you don’t have a car. Cheap sugar means rotten teach by three.

I realized an introduction wouldn’t do this book justice. It wouldn’t be fair. I could come to my own conclusions: that this was the story of an America I’d never seen, where girls became moms at twelve, and three-year-olds passed around blunts and bootie danced. Men had multiple wives, and gunned each other down in the streets. This was a story about a system stacked against the people who lived there, a system designed to see them fail. 

Random Family is a chaotic tumble of breakdowns and letdowns, betrayals and grief. It’s pain paired with joy: the beauty of the teenagers, their clothes and jewelry and hair and makeup, and the  beauty of the love in the ghetto: between parents and children, between lovers, between friends. People take care of each other’s kids; people share what little they have. People do their best to keep each other alive.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Halfway through Random Family, I looked up and found myself on a Southwest plane, half-full and on its way back from Atlanta. I’d been at an expensive educational conference, and I was exhausted, though I’d learned a ton: about accelerating students, interpreting data, and the obstacles young men of color face at community colleges today. I was wearing a nice outfit, and my new laptop slept in my bookbag.

I held Random Family in my hands and thought about all that I had, growing up: summer camp, a grassy yard, a dog and cat, a laundry line. A street that I could bike down. Friends I could explore the woods with. Skis and a ski pass; figure skates. Soccer balls; a tennis racket. A subscription to Highlights and a bookshelf of books, all mine. I thought about all the choices, big and small, that brought me to this moment. Some of those choices I made for myself, but most were already set for me, because of who my parents were, my grandparents. Because of the color of my skin, my class, my caste, all of my inheritances, I was one of the lucky ones, and I had had it so good. I hadn't done anything to earn that. I held LeBlanc’s Random Family in my hands, and I cried: it was so late, I was so tired, and there was just so much suffering in this world. I felt so suddenly guilty. Plus, our country is so sharply broken, and it probably won’t ever get fixed. There are so many of us who will go through our lives – on planes to conferences, in our cars to school – never knowing how bad things could be.

Dear readers, if you haven’t already, please go to the library and check out Random Family. I can assure you it will change your life. Don’t let the absence of high-level explanations dissuade you, because those don’t exist in the ghetto, and this book is true to that world. In its title and in its telling, Random Family depicts a realm just up the road, or just downstate - not far from you. Desperation lives around the corner. This is America, Random Family proclaims: severely fucked up, but wretchedly beautiful nevertheless.

Monday, February 8, 2016

THE MURALIST: Art Lovers Everywhere Lap it Up

Need something fast, hot, and downright good? You could hit up the Shake Foundation in Santa Fe...or you could just head on down to the library and pick up anything by B.A. Shapiro. I fell in love at The Art Forger, Ms. Shapiro's 2013 page-turner about fraud, all-nighters, and painting. So when Peg at the SFCC library put The Muralist, Shapiro's latest, into my hands, I dashed home, prepared tea, and began to devour.

The Muralist  doesn't disappoint. It's paced deftly, darting between 2015 New York to the tumult of the city in the 1940s. Shapiro characterizes well the cast of characters at arty bars and crammed, frigid studios: the alcoholic, say-anything Pollock; the supportive, sensible Krasner; the darkly sensual Rothko.

Among them is Alizee, their lesser-known (and wholly imagined) comrade, perhaps the most talented but also, arguably, the most troubled. Fighting to bring her Jewish family from France to New York, Alizee loses herself in her work...and ultimately loses her mind. Her 1940 disappearance anchors the book, providing a quiet mystery that undercuts the narrative, past and present.

Best of all, the book is fast and fun. It's light, the type of narrative you fall into after a long day of grading papers, barking at students, hustling to meetings...all the hours spent NOT reading. This is no Charles Dickens (happy belated, my fellow Aquarian friend!), but Give me something easy, I said to Peg, and she did.

To me, The Muralist's greatest strength lies not in the tense letters Alizee exchanges with her family in Europe, nor in the vivid descriptions of drunken nights with the (soon-to-be-filthy-rich) gang of artists. No, Shapiro's writing grabs ahold of me because of the way she writes work, the artist's work: frantic at times, possessed, as if she's no longer herself but the paint and the brush. The artist is gone from the world; she's left the building. The paint is her food, the hours her caffeine, the energy of the painting her fuel. I love reading about this lustful, crazed work - the same that defined the protagonist in The Art Forger, because when making art is good, it feels this way. You're not you anymore, and yet you've never been more yourself than in that moment.

Shapiro, in sensible, accessible prose, writes on the nature of art, and on the artist's life. It's one of trouble, anxiety, fear, and despair, but the moments of sheer beauty make it worth it.

Friends, hustle on down to your nearest book purveyor, and snap up a copy of The Muralist. Not in yet? Take The Art Forger instead...you'll probably need it for one night only.

Happy reading, my loves! Now carry on.