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story behind the book | kate tuttle

A tale of a dying man’s birthday, unapologetic in its Mexican-ness

david wilson for the boston globe

As a writer, Luis Alberto Urrea is both prolific and versatile, with 16 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The son of an American mother and a Mexican father, he grew up part of a sprawling family that encompasses multiple nations and languages — a background that may have contributed to his seemingly effortless flexibility as a storyteller.

Although he says he loves the challenge of writing fiction, Urrea’s latest novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” is “in some ways a cheat,” he said, because it’s so closely based on his own older brother’s experience. In the book, a 70-year-old man dying of cancer throws a final birthday celebration for himself, just a day after his mother’s funeral. In real life, Urrea said, “my brother was dying of cancer, and the homies back in San Diego decided to throw him a birthday party. He was enough of an egomaniac to really appreciate the idea of having a wake while he was alive. He could sort of direct it.”


Funny, sad, and tender, the novel centers on a group of siblings not unlike Urrea’s own as they mourn, reminisce, argue, and laugh through the weekend. The setting is a quintessentially American landscape, from the strip malls and suburban tracts of Southern California to the Mexican towns from which Urrea’s ancestors came. Twenty-five years after his first book came out, Urrea said, he’s grown “tired of being Mr. Culture Warrior. I thought, ‘I’m going to write something completely unapologetic, because I have no apologies to make for Mexican-ness. I have no shame, no embarrassment. I’m going to celebrate.’ ”

The result is a novel that’s pleased not only Urrea’s family (even though he worried enough about their reaction that he wrote it “somewhat in secret”), but readers from all kinds of backgrounds. “It’s been such a great thing,” he said. “I’ve never been inundated with the kind of response that I’m getting from this book.”


Luis Alberto Urrea will read at 7 p.m. Friday, June 8, at Newtonville Books.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.