Magic in the Medium
Luis Urrea's novel works moving literary feats
The House of Broken Angels
The angels that populate Luis Alberto Urrea's newest novel, The House of Broken Angels, are not descended from on-high, they are in fact very much of this Earth, though one is soon to depart. This is the story of Miguel Angel De la Cruz—Big Angel—the patriarch of a sprawling family, as he experiences the final days of his life.
Big Angel, earning his “Big” status as the older half-brother of “Little Angel,” is slowly succumbing to cancer and tethered to his wheelchair. The book opens as the whole big, messy extended family descends on the outskirts of San Diego for the funeral of Big Angel's mother, América. Big Angel's plan is to have one last, big birthday party—his 70th—while every De la Cruz he can wrangle is still in town. His own living wake.
The story and perspective, while firmly holding Big Angel at the center, is extremely fluid—readers are transferred from Big Angel's perspective, to his wife's, to his son's, to his brother's and on and on. Despite the wealth of characters we are introduced to in The House of Broken Angels, none of them feel clumsily rendered or incomplete. Some like the beautiful but burdened La Gloriosa; or Big Angel's troubled Iraq-veteran son, Lalo; or Little Angel, his younger half-white brother, create a more resonant emotional tug than others. Still, instead of being overwhelming, each voice adds to the complexity of the family, its authenticity—the little struggles and common joys that are not just the heart of this book, but of Big Angel's life.
It is impossible to read this book without seeing the subtext, how it speaks to this moment. Here is the story of one Mexican-American family whose history is intimately tied to both sides of the border: two languages, two cultures. In a moment when many families with similar stories are tried by politics and divided by rhetoric and borders, the novel is a reflection on identity. Big Angel, cast magically in his memory, his childhood on the Baja Peninsula; his wife remembers meager years in Tijuana. Meanwhile, Little Angel's perspective observes contrasts and similarities between white Americans and Mexican Americans. The commentary is often poignant and explicit, “Love is the answer,” Big Angel tells his daughter. "Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.”
What also sticks is the heartrending realization of Big Angel's own struggle against time, a universal battle that we often realize we are fighting too late. With tremendous tenderness, he looks back on his life, keeps little notebooks of things he his grateful for—morning coffee with pan dulce, all my women all around me, a garden full of chiles and tomatoes, tortillas, corn, not flour. Big Angel, “the Mexican Buddha, in his blue pajama bottoms and gym socks” offers wisdom and, through lyrical magic, extends his hard-won love of life to the reader. That is a feat. That is what the very best that books can offer us as readers.
This is a tremendous work—full of joy, yes, but regret, too—capable of humor typed right on to the page with phrases that will provoke tears. Life is complex, and so is Urrea's book, but as we all do, it aims at transcendence. Here, it is quite deftly achieved.
Urrea will read from The House of Broken Angels, and discuss his work at the KiMo Theatre (423 Central Ave. NW) on Wednesday, March 14 at 7pm. Tickets start at $35 and include a hardcover, signed copy of the novel. They are available now at bkwrks.com.