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book review

One birthday and a funeral

David Pereiras -

Afamily is not a story but a battlefield of competing stories.

He left us; he returned; he was a bad man; he did his best.

In Luis Alberto Urrea’s rambunctious third novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” a veritable game of thrones of such competing tales kicks off within a Mexican-American family between the bookends of a funeral and a birthday over a weekend in San Diego.

At the center of this immensely charming and moving tale is Miguel Angel, known to all as Big Angel, patriarch of the sprawling de La Cruz family.

As the novel opens, Big Angel is getting ready for the funeral of his mother, Mamá América. Unusually, he’s going to be late (as a reflection of his hyper-punctuality, his co-workers used to teasingly call him “the German’’).


Soon enough a reader realizes that Big Angel is very ill, probably dying. He’s being brought to the funeral by his wife, Perla, and their daughter, Minnie.

In and out of clothes they get him, in and out of a van, in and out of his wheelchair.

Everywhere Big Angel goes he’s not alone. People touch him, as people in chairs are so often touched, and we meet the handlers. Big Angel’s tall brother Cesar of the many wives. His younger half-brother, Little Angel, the one with a chip on his shoulder.

Children, alive and dead, fan out around him like rays of sunshine.

Urea deftly inhabits many of their points of views, dreaming up an internal voice for each, from Perla’s sexy sister to her chubby death-metal musician nephew.

Entering a party after it has begun is disorienting. It is a testament to Urrea’s swift and lucid characterizations one does not want to leave this one.

Within 50 pages, it is impossible to mix up La Gloriosa, the tough, capable, sister of Perla who is still mourning the death of her only boy, with La Paz, the fire-starting, tequila drinking watchful sister.


All of them, it would seem, have a shine toward Big Angel, who knows it but loves his wife with a devotion so beautifully drawn one hopes it gets its own separate novel someday.

“The House of Broken Angels” has to keep moving, though. Sisters, aunts, cousins, third cousins, keeping so many characters distinct requires a heavy brushstroke, and every so often a reader yearns for someone who is bigger or stranger than their experiences.

Big Angel’s son, Lalo, an Iraq veteran, is traumatized; Glorioso, the sexy sister, feels lonely; and Little Angel, for all his university smarts, secretly resents his brother for always being in control. Few of these traits turn out to be a surprise.

Two basic mysteries keep us reading through the occasional cliched characterization. Will Big Angel survive the book? This question grows more pressing as his state of mind enters end of life transcendences, all of which are described lyrically by Urrea. Also, Lalo receives an opportunity for retribution that is a chance to be the man his father still is, even hollowed by illness: Will he take it?

Buffeted by these mysteries, yoked to what the poet Jack Gilbert called the great fires — sex and death — “The House of Broken Angels’’ does not turn down the volume much once it begins. And it keeps growing. Two-thirds of the way, as Mamá América’s funeral tips into what will likely be Big Angel’s last birthday party, Urrea is still introducing new characters.


Many of them come from somewhere else. Urrea is matter of fact about the impulse to move. It is necessary. Big Angel’s family initially crossed the border into California after the Revolution. They became Mexican again in the 1930s, Urrea points out, when the government, done deporting the Chinese, rounded up 2 million mestizos and sent them back south. Eighty years later, even fighting in a US war doesn’t stop one of his sons from getting deported.

In Urrea’s first and most recent books of nonfiction, such as the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Devil’s Highway,” the agonies and abuses of this border zone has been the topic. Here, though, these issues are backdropped by the reason why people make such journeys so often: love.

From the love of marriages to the love of siblings, “The House of Broken Angels” shows how that the only reason people fight over stories is they want to connect, to be loved. They need to be loved. Some are starved for love.

In a world that reduces human complexity to phrases like anchor baby or in-migration, a novel like “The House of Broken Angels” is a radical act. It is a big, epic story about how hard it is to love with all of your heart, and all of your family — regardless of which side of the border they live on. After all, as this novel keenly reminds us, all of us will one day wind up on the other side.



By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown, 327 pp., $27

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John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, and author of several books including “Maps,’’ a collection of poems.