Born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, son of a Mexican father and Anglo mother, prolific novelist, poet and nonfiction writer Luis Alberto Urrea is a border crosser between cultures and genres.
The reader of his generous, big-hearted novel “The House of Broken Angels” is welcomed into an epic doubleheader of celebrations: the funeral of a Mexican-American matriarch followed by the 74th birthday party of her cancer-ridden son. Unfolding over the course of a single raucous weekend, novel and party move from the Bavarian Chalet of Rest funeral home to a tract house in a Mexican neighborhood of San Diego, “bulging elastically like an old cartoon — music and dust flying out through the gaping junctures of the bouncing, jiving walls.”
Big Angel de la Cruz, epicenter of his extended Mexican-American family, is in the final days of terminal disease; but this “All-Father, Mexican Odin” has never been more alive. All his guests — “high rollers and college students, prison veteranos and welfare mothers, happy kids and sad old-timers and pinches gringos and all available relatives” — love Big Angel. You will, too — although you might also be a bit overwhelmed. This guy is a life force; a noncriminal Godfather meets Zorba the Greek, “his black eyes shone with mad light, hunger for the world, amusement and excitement. They raged with delight in everything.”
Such plot as exists comes from the unexpected appearance of Big Angel’s estranged, much younger half-brother Gabriel, aka Little Angel, an academician from Seattle who tries (ultimately unsuccessfully) to keep his emotional distance. Other prodigal sons also lurk in the background: drug-addicted Iraq vet Lalo, tattooed drag queen Yndio, and the ghosts of cousins murdered in a street shooting.
“The House of Broken Angels” hurtles forward with linguistic exuberance that can be gorgeous (“the moon was a curl of God’s fingernail”) but also exhausting to keep up with. Urrea, who paints in neons rather than pastels, does not write for the emotionally faint of heart in need of personal space. Big Angel’s prodigal son “Yndio [is] astounded when his uncle [Little Angel] crawled into bed next to Pops.” At the end of the party and the novel, everybody in this family literally gets into bed with each other: “And they all made room for [Yndio too] in the family bed.”
As the novel moves through a single weekend, precise times down to the minute are noted in headings, measuring out “the density of the day.” We never forget that Big Angel’s mortal clock is ticking in “an accelerating countdown to nightfall.” But despite the inevitable winding down of parties and patriarchs, this pulsating human universe — its “the rings of descendants, like shock waves of a meteor strike, radiating back through the room” — is expanding rather than contracting.
Always ready to move over and make room for one more, “The House of Broken Angels” soars on wings of memory and imagination into the “imperfect and glorious, messy and hilarious” tragedy and comedy of family history.
Diana Postlethwaite teaches English at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
The House of Broken Angels
By: Luis Alberto Urrea.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 326 pages, $27.