In the Family Way

Writer Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Bronx Odyssey

"Coco's ordinary," LeBlanc explains, "and I say that with the deepest meaning in ordinary. I'm really interested in the richness and political necessity of understanding mundane life, common life." According to LeBlanc, comprehending the humdrum details of poverty is the first step toward any political solution. "In terms of poverty policy and social policy in this country, we are really going to get on with it when poor people will just be people and not have to be self-abdicating martyrs—when poor people can just be like anyone else: Make good choices, bad choices, be nice, be jerks, be whatever anyone else gets to be."

LeBlanc acknowledges that the default response in public discussions of the poor is often condemnation. She insists, however, that enlightened reform is still possible. "I used to think that you had to have lots of extraordinary programs, but what you really need is enough adequate programs," she explains. "I don't think that it's this massive overhaul that we need. There are very obvious things that need to happen." LeBlanc's list includes raising the minimum wage, providing sex education, creating decent day-care facilities, and repealing the Rockefeller drug laws, which she calls "shameful and obscene."

Random family: reporter LeBlanc, fly on the wall
photo: Kristine Larsen
Random family: reporter LeBlanc, fly on the wall

Remarkably, LeBlanc never takes the authorial opportunity in Random Family to pull back and expound upon social conditions. Her moments of expository writing are limited to such aphorisms as "Virginity could put sneakers on your feet" or "Success was less about climbing than about not falling down." Instead of judgments, explanations, and statistics, she offers unadorned, seemingly unmediated reality—what Mark Kramer calls her "relentless neutrality." Drawing readers so utterly into her subjects' daily existence, she reflects how their life-shattering decisions (to have a child at age 14, to join the drug trade, to miss school or a crucial welfare appointment) are familiar, natural, and reasonable. In a life of constant, wearying crisis, people begin ranking emergencies to the point that some of them are no longer recognizable as such. In Random Family, the discreet distance—the otherness—of urban poverty quickly disappears and the inner logic of this damaging world emerges. On certain nights, it's easier to sleep than face the intruders.

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