by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
416 pages, $25
In 1990, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, then an editor at Seventeen and a freelance reporter seeking out stories about young people, attended the trial of a twenty-two year-old drug dealer named Boy George, an entrepreneurial prodigy who had built an empire around his own brand of heroin, Obsession. As she began writing about him, Boy George introduced LeBlanc to his tight-knit social network of friends and family, centered in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the South Bronx. This network included Jessica, one of George's girlfriends, who had been angling for years to become his primary, even if not legal, "wife"; Jessica's tough younger brother, Cesar; and Cesar's favorite girlfriend, Coco. George went to prison for life as a result of the trial, but over the course of the next eleven years LeBlanc followed Jessica, Cesar, Coco, and their expanding families through the course of their daily lives. Within a few years, Jessica and Cesar also ended up sentenced to long prison terms (Jessica for her minor role in George's business and Cesar for a series of charges, including the accidental fatal shooting of his best friend), while Coco remained, struggling, on the outside with her family. LeBlanc became a frequent and comfortable presence in the lives of Coco and her children as they moved from shelters to the apartments of friends and family and, eventually, to the depressed upstate city of Troy, New York, searching for a new start.
These experiences form the narrative of LeBlanc's first book, Random Family, which traces the lives of her subjects from the mid-eighties until close to the present day. In the book's first chapter, George and Jessica meet, and George's heroin-derived wealth fuels limousine rides, lavish parties, and one magical ski weekend in the Poconos for himself, Jessica, Cesar, and Coco—as well as more ordinary luxuries like full kitchen cupboards for Jessica's mother. After George's assets evaporate, the book's subjects resume fighting for survival in a world of such economic fragility that a mistake, an impulsive splurge, or even a generous gesture toward someone more desperate can send a family into a state of emergency. LeBlanc chronicles these ups and downs matter-of-factly, from the point of view of a narrator rather than a player in the drama, letting the stark facts speak for themselves.