Sunday, June 10, 2018

The House of Broken Angels - Luis Alberto Urrea (2018)

The House of Broken Angels is another one of the last several books to be recommended via the New York Times Book Review podcast.  One week, they discussed the novel in the segment about what they were currently reading.  The next week, they had Urrea on as a guest.  The novel sounded intriguing enough so I decided to check it out.  Was it good?  Yes.  Will it make the Best Books list?  No.  Would I recommend it?  Yes.  I have to say yes.  I was about to say "sort of" or "maybe" but I remembered how I was going to compare it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao favorably.  It is somewhere between that and One Hundred Years of SolitudeIt is not as stylish as either, but it is more reader-friendly than both.

After the book, Urrea adds an author's note which says that while this story is not 100% true, perhaps 95% is true.  There are no Angels, but it does appear to be based off the occasion of his mother's funeral and the last birthday of his dying brother.  It would seem like Little Angel is his stand-in, and Big Angel is his older brother.  

Big Angel and Little Angel are actually named Miguel and Gabriel, I think, but they also say that their father forgot that he had already used the name.  In any case, Big Angel is about 70 or so and dying of cancer.  He is certainly the main character along with Little Angel.  

There is also Perla (his wife), Minnie (his daughter), Cesar (his brother), Lalo (his son), and to an extent other family members La Gloriosa (sister-in-law, mother to Guillermo, who was killed alongside Braulio), Braulio (oldest son, who has a ghostly presence in the novel), Don Antonio (father, who appears as an actual ghost near the beginning of the novel), Marco (Cesar's son), Giovanni (Lalo's son), Ookie (neighbor, who appears to be developmentally disabled), Mama America (mother), Mary-Lu (sister-in-law) and other husbands and wives.  At times it feels like every character has to have "their section" and the novel lapses into a sort of mock-ironic limited third-person perspective.  While the reader is reminded of certain details at several different points, it is still difficult to summarize the overall thrust of the characters' arcs.  Suffice to say, it is about Big Angel gathering everybody together at his house for his birthday party.  Even though it feels a little contrived, there is a great climax at the end of the novel, and there are other shorter, wittier parts, such as the jokes Big Angel tells to his grand-kids.  

The strongest element of the novel are the phrases in italics, sprinkled seemingly randomly throughout, meant to itemize his gratitudes:

"rain" (85)
cilantro" (64)
"Blade Runner
more time
more time
more" (231)

This is also probably the first book to reference Guardians of the Galaxy and the deaths of Bowie and Prince.  It is very "of the moment" and its legacy value is, therefore, diminished.  This is not always the case, at least in the example of the output of "the brat pack." Yet they wrote about what was young and hip in a way that Urrea only seems to caricature.  While this is a very good book, it is by no means perfect.  The writing is good and solid, even while the dialogue tends to feel padded, or like it doesn't tend to advance character or plot.  In this case the sin is forgivable.

There is a lot of sexual material in the book, yet most of it seems rather plain and hackneyed, and alternative lifestyles tend to be dispatched for shock value and knee-jerk disgust.  Then again this is a novel about a patriarch and a family that tends to start birthing children at a young age.  One vague plot hole that seems inadequately explored is daughter Minnie's status as a grandmother.  I could be totally wrong about this but I swear it was mentioned just once and never exactly spelled out.  I did find this:

"Minnie's oldest son was a sailor and told her that in Portland there was some kind of voodoo donut shop.  Like, you could bu a coffin full of donuts.  Crazy hippies.  The boys on his ship were all tweaked about bacon-wrapped maple bars.  She wished she could get some of those.  Her man would love them."  (106-107)

Other criticisms may be leveled at this novel, and while it is far from perfect, it is beautifully orchestrated, and crystallizes a narrative structure that feels unique.  Surely something similar to the "party novel" has been done, yet I cannot recall any at the moment.  In this case, a big family reunion, with the narrator flitting between characters like a butterfly.  Aside from that, it is often profound, concerned as it is with the Important subject matter that is death and dying:

 "Big Angel was turning seventy.  It seemed very old to him.  At the same time, it felt far too young.  He had not intended to leave the party so soon.  'I have tried to be good,' he told his invisible interviewer.
His mother had made it to the edge of one hundred.  He had thought he'd at least make it that far.  In his mind, he was still a kid, yearning for laughter and a good book, adventures and one more albondigas soup cooked by Perla.  He wished he had gone to college.  He wished he had seen Paris.  He wished he had taken the time for a Caribbean cruise, because he secretly wanted to snorkel, and once he got well, he would go do that.  He was still planning to go see Seattle.  See what kind of life his baby brother had.  He suddenly realized he hadn't even gone to the north side of San Diego, to La Jolla, where all the rich gringos went to get suntans and diamonds.  He wished he had walked on the beach.  Why did he not have sand dollars and shells?  A sand dollar suddenly seemed like a very fine thing to have.  And he had forgotten to go to Disneyland.  He sat back in shock: he had been too busy to even go to the zoo.  He could have smacked his own forehead.  He didn't care about lions, tigers.  He wanted to see a rhinoceros.  He resolved to ask Minnie to buy him a good rhino figure.  Then wondered where he should put it.  By the bed.  Damned right.  He was a rhino.  He'd charge at death and knock the hell out of it.  Lalo had tattoos--maybe he'd get one too.  When he got better." (61-62)

Meditations on death tend to remind one not to take life for granted.  Certainly, it is often a miserable ride.  Yet there are also good parts and things to be thankful to have experienced.  It seems like most of the bad stuff happened to Big Angel in the early part of his life, and once he became a father, and lived with Perla as husband and wife, it was overwhelmingly a very happy one.  It could have been a better novel, I think, but he seemed to have lived his life well, if his goal was to heavily populate his birthday death party with family.  Not all of us would like to have the same life as Big Angel, yet few of us could hope to have so much to look back and smile upon.

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