Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Make out, get high, break down
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Akitchen is so infested that cockroaches crawl out of the ketchup bottle. A teenage inmate finally meets his estranged father in a prison corridor. A girl knows when her man is really angry because she recovers consciousness at his mother's.

Saturated as we are with images of Bush's superpower, it's sometimes easy to forget that another America exists: that of the inner cities with their disaffected underclass. Poverty, bad health, sexual abuse, addiction, overcrowding, teenage motherhood, crime and violence - the ghetto may have swapped the syringe for the gin bottle but it has all the animated squalor of a Hogarth print. Only the dress codes differ: youths are weighed down with gold and guns, girls shake their booty in Spandex and mink.

Random Family is an extraordinary non-fiction saga which follows four young Latinos from the South Bronx. They make out, fall out, give birth, get high and break down without ever lowering the volume. It's like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, which, at times, gets so unrelentingly grim, you have to tune out.

Gorgeous, angry Jessica, pregnant at 16, jailed for seven years, will be a grandmother by her early 30s. Cesar, her macho younger brother, carries a gun at 12, heads a gang, spends his young adulthood behind bars for manslaughter. His girlfriend, the child-sized, devoted Coco, is a worn-out mother of five while hardly out of her teens. Boy George, Jessica's sadistic lover, runs a ruthless heroin operation grossing over $500,000 a week. By 23 he's serving life.

The award-winning journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent 11 years documenting the ups and downs of these Puerto Ricans. She taped hundreds of hours of interviews, attended trials and studied court transcripts, medical and prison records. She listened to government telephone wiretaps, followed her interviewees on to the streets, into homeless shelters and casualty departments, tracking their lives as they made the same mistakes their parents made and their children will make too.

LeBlanc penetrates this other world like a modern-day Mayhew. Like him she gives a voice to the urban poor, sometimes using their own words and conversations ("Where's my daddy?'' "You be having a dream.'') Her portrait is intimate without being voyeuristic. LeBlanc is never judgmental, although the details are both melodramatic and chilling. Here it's not unusual for young women to offer their mothers coke so that they will stay in to baby-sit, or for a parent to go twice daily to a school so she can escort a fearful 11-year-old to the lavatory.

This community throbs with the expectation of violence, from mother-in-laws who terrorise children with Rottweilers to teenage girls coating their faces with Vaseline so they won't scar in a fight. Lives are accelerated. "Bad'' is a term of endearment, a compliment to children with attitude. So little boys learn to act tough early, counted on to sort out the problems of female family members. Girls, meanwhile, seem to miss out on childhood altogether, helping to raise younger offspring.

LeBlanc shows respect for these people who struggle to survive a system that often seems stacked against them. Friends exhort each other to "do right'' and return to school - but, ironically, the only place where there's time to get an education is prison. Good intentions vaporise with every setback. It's exasperating to see Coco get pregnant once again or Lourdes, Jessica's mother, adopt another addict lover or Jessica choose to party rather than stay in with her neglected child. But, as LeBlanc points out, they embrace every chance with its glimmer of opportunity.

Such is the chaos that one grandmother, whose apartment is a cross between "a stash den and a teen fort'', longs for the peace of the psychiatric ward. In these random families, structure and continuity are missing. Everything seems provisional when everyone is always on the move. By the time she's eight, Mercedes - Coco and Cesar's child - has had eight homes. Friends, lovers, relations - all fugitives from something - come and go, sleeping on couches, crashing on floors, sometimes for months.

There is something tribal about these domestic arrangements. Virginity can "put sneakers on your feet''. But while first girlfriends are treated as "wives'', subsequent girls never have the same status. Mothers of sons rate higher than those bearing daughters. With every new relationship, the families extend further and such is the over-layering that children sometimes lose the thread. Coco's toddler asks Cesar "Are you my daddy?'' He isn't.

It's the children who are most damaged by this instability and it leads to a depressing and familiar cycle. Jessica, neglected and beaten viciously as a child by Lourdes, starves her oldest child of attention. Jessica tries suicide and equates violence with love. Exhausted and empty of esteem, Coco picks at her face until it bleeds. Nikki, her daughter, starts to do the same.

Many of the women in this Bronx Side Story have suffered sexual abuse. When two-year-old Serena is molested and later little Mercedes is discovered to have genital warts, the relatives' distress seems to be less about the child's trauma than their own feelings of powerlessness, guilt and failure. Within this mayhem, however, there is love. Family is all. Nobody wants her children taken into care. When Jessica gives birth in prison, her sister comes to collect her twins within 48 hours rather than allow them to be wards of the state. Milagros, Jessica's friend, raises all five of Jessica's children while Jessica is both in and out of gaol.

Random Family does have its lighter moments. Whoever lit on the idea of making homeless people compose essays entitled "Why I want to live in public housing''? In order to qualify Coco writes "Because I'm homeless.'' Serena and friends, celebrating her birthday, pose for photographs shouting "welfare'' and "food stamps''. And then there's the homicide detective nicknamed Rambo who moonlights as a body-piercer...

At the start of the book Jessica, Coco and Cesar are hopeful. A decade later they've come of age. They blame no one for their problems, holding themselves accountable. For Cesar there's redemption of a sort in his relationship with his troubled young daughter Mercedes.

E M Forster wrote "The very poor are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician and the poet.'' There are no statistics in Random Family. Nor is LeBlanc's style poetic. Yet with this ghetto-blaster of a book, sympathetic and unsentimental, she makes us think deeply about America's desperate urban poor.

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