A few years ago, I heard Luis Alberto Urrea perform a story from his collection The Water Museum. I say perform because he kept the book closed the whole time. He'd learned the story by heart, and listening to him deliver "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery," voices and all, felt like sticking my finger in a socket. The whole room was vibrating by the time he took a bow. So when I started reading Urrea's latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, my expectations were through the roof. And yet, somehow, he exceeded them.
First of all, Urrea's gifts as a storyteller are prodigious. He writes with the looseness and confidence of Usain Bolt shaking out his limbs. He has an exceptional ability to swing from high language to low, to channel a character in less than a sentence sentence, to pile a fart joke on an extended metaphor on a poem and convince you that all three belong. Reading Urrea feels like getting invited to a party. Come on, his prose says. You don't want to miss this.
The House of Broken Angels is, in fact, a party. Also a funeral. When the novel opens, Big Angel de la Cruz, the patriarch of a sprawling Mexican-American family, is getting ready to bury his mother, and to die. (First sentence: "Big Angel was late to his own mother's funeral." Who wouldn't keep reading?) He's in the late stages of terminal cancer, and so he gathers his relatives for a weekend-long doubleheader. Saturday, funeral. Sunday, his last birthday party.
The setup may sound like a tearjerker, but the book's spirit is irrepressibly high. Even in its saddest moments, The House of Broken Angels hums with joy. Big Angel spends much of the book listing what he's grateful for: family, marriage, working, oysters, being taller than my kids. He and his wife, Perla, remain fiercely in love, and though he's too weak to act on it, their marriage still overflows with desire. (Another entry on the gratitude list: Perla pulling up her stockings.) And he takes deep, sensual pleasure in memory. In one brilliant page-long breath,
Big Angel conjures the smell of La Paz, Mexico on the day he met Perla: the sea, which is "salt and seaweed and shrimp and distance;" the rain, which means "the creeping smell of the desert going wet;" so much food; three whole paragraphs of smoke.
But most of all, The House of Broken Angels overflows with the pleasure of family. You wouldn't be wrong to take this book as a rebuttal to Tolstoy's happy-family dictum. I'm not saying the de la Cruz family is perfect. Its members struggle with addiction, exhaustion, alienation, frustrated ambition. One is married to a woman who might be a demon. One spends the whole funeral and most of the birthday party outside in his car, too stubborn and afraid to come inside. Everyone is grieving, Big Angel most of all, and yet this is not a novel about grief. It's a novel about how amazing it is to have been alive.
This is a family that knows how to be amazed, and how to conjure amazement. Take Big Angel's sister-in-law, La Gloriosa. We get a whole scene of her grooming, because "you didn't just jump out of bed looking like the living legend of the family." Her beauty, she explains as she puts on her multiple lipsticks, is "aided yet not diminished by artifice. The Mona Lisa was in a beautiful frame, qué no?" The House of Broken Angels is full of beautiful frames. There's the moment when Big Angel's daughter La Minnie surprises him with a full mariachi band. There's an intricate world made of Legos. There's a drag show, a drug trip, the heavy-metal shrieks of Big Angel's great-nephew Marco, front man of a band called Satanic Hispanic. Everyone's a performer.
It takes a certain courage to perform. A person on stage has to be vulnerable, ready to hear laughter when she didn't want it, or see an eye-roll when he's looking for tears. The vulnerability on display in this novel is what makes it exceptional. It radiates from every character on the page, and from the author, who based Big Angel on his own brother Juan. And all that vulnerability, combined with humor and celebration and Urrea's vivid prose, will crack you open. At least while you're reading, this book will make you vulnerable, too.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.