There’s nothing quite like a funeral to set a novelist’s wheels in motion: All those characters forced into one place, all those chances to explore the performative nature of family relationships, all those lies and secrets to expose, all of our mortality to contemplate. In his fifth novel, The House of Broken Angels, the pleasure is in watching Luis Alberto Urrea submit to every last opportunity the setup offers—it’s a big-hearted family epic that radiates with the joy of telling stories, undercut by the knowledge that the story eventually ends. Graham Swift knew it in Last Orders. Marquez knew it in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Faulkner knew it in As I Lay Dying.
Miguel Angel de La Cruz, the patriarch at the center of Urrea’s story, is facing death twice in two days. The novel is set during the funeral for his mother and his 70th birthday party the day after, events that he privately considers his farewell; he’s been diagnosed with cancer and has weeks to live. So he savors his San Diego home becoming a gathering spot for his large extended family—three siblings and many in-laws and grandkids who together form of cross-section of the American experience. His estranged son Yndio is a “non-cisgendered, non-heteronormative cultural liberation warrior.” His half-brother Gabriel, aka Little Angel, is an English professor in Seattle, studying his Mexican heritage from an academic remove. His son Lalo is an Iraq War vet mourning the death of another son, Braulio, to gang violence.
All this is the legacy of Big Angel successfully bringing his wife across the Mexican border decades before, “when it became obvious that only hunger and dirt and rats and evil police waited for them in the poorest of the colonias where they could afford to live.” But while Broken Angels is broadly a novel about the Mexican-American experience, that conceit breaks apart like a pointillist painting . At every turn Urrea is striving to unsettle assumptions about what “Mexican-American experience means”—simple summaries are for Donald Trump and lesser stand-up comics. Big Angel, he writes, was “so famous for punctuality that the Americans at work used to call him ‘the German.’ Very funny, he thought. As if a Mexican couldn’t be punctual. As if Vicente Fox was late to things, cabrones.”
The gringo culture that spins such stereotypes is mostly off to the side in the novel—a snippet of raw-throated talk-radio chatter, a passing insult in a supermarket aisle. But Big Angel’s enclave is plenty diverse in itself. Nearly all of the characters have multiple nicknames (Little Angel is “the Assimilator,” Lalo is “Hungry Man”) as if to highlight their complex and multitude-containing status, the way a person changes depending on who’s doing the looking. Urrea carries all of this lightly, though, even sentimentally. The vibe of the novel isn’t an elegy for the end of a clan that’s lost its sense of identity, but a tribute to a family that has acquired the freedom to make multiple identities for itself.
“Little Angel thought it was all turning into an end-of-semester project for his multicultural studies course,” Urrea writes. The line is funny because it’s true: the party is filled with Dreamers, gangbangers, grandmas, and women “as magnificent as a velvet painting of an Aztec goddess in a taco shop.” And the line is serious because Little Angel has missed the point—a family is not a petri dish for pat notions about diversity. Urrea is consistently working through this tension throughout the book, keeping the tone upbeat while acknowledging the stormclouds in his characters’ stories, sometimes decades worth of them. His strategies for lightening the mood can be shameless in their contrivance. A nephew of Big Angel sings in a black-metal band called Hispanic Panic and tourettically spouts headbanger mottos, while Little Angel’s ivory-tower seriousness is undone by his lust for a sister-in-law. And Big Angel maintains a notebook in which he lists the things he’s grateful for, moments where the strings swell ever-louder: “wildflowers after rain,” “a day without pain,” “a kiss from my brother.”
But another strategy Urrea uses is to not stay in one place too long: The silly scenes give way to the richly comic ones, the sentimental ones to the moments of somber pathos. And he’s rightly confident that the mix of storytelling forms will cohere. The House of Broken Angels isn’t exactly plotless—it recalls Don DeLillo’s quip that all plots tend toward death. But Urrea wants to assert a status, not a trajectory. Big Angel is an everyman, “a rolling laugh riot … arbiter of bad jokes, spiritual insight, ice cream money, and shelter when they were bounced out of their houses or were let out of jail or rehab or needed to come in off the streets at midnight.” And likewise, Urrea’s novel is a Mexican-American novel that’s a retort to what such a novel ought to be. For a novel about death, there’s a lot of life in it