Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The House of Broken Angels” is a big, sprawling, messy, sexy, raucous house party of a book, a pan-generational family saga with an enormous, bounding heart, a poetic delivery and plenty of swagger. It’s not perfect — in fact, even its flaws are big — but it stays with you, and it stands as a vital reminder of the value of fiction in defining the immigrant experience.
The noisy swirl of Urrea’s novel revolves around the dying patriarch Miguel Angel “Big Angel” de la Cruz when three generations gather over the course of a weekend for a final valedictory celebration. His mother recently dead, Big Angel himself is on the way out after an outsize life of danger, romance and striving. Orbiting him is a proliferating solar system of children and relatives, and with them a galaxy of feuds, slights, alliances, resentments, flirtations and memories. “Every man dies with secrets,” Big Angel thinks to himself, nearing his epiphany. He might have added that every man’s death brings forth secrets in others.
This is hardly a fresh setup — the big ethnic gathering as plot engine is a fairly tired device — but Urrea’s embrace of it is so ardent, and his execution of it so energetic, that he blows right past any reservations about originality. The most technically impressive element of this spiraling group narrative is how the story rotates among the various family members, weaving their disparate voices, with effortless command, into a kind of Hispanic fugue of memory and desire. More than once while reading “House,” I thought of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” another kaleidoscopic fable of family life that skillfully mixes perspectives.
I cannot remember a recent novel that was so energetically promiscuous in its embrace of the senses, one that brought forth such a riot of sounds and smells and tastes, of butterscotch and pounding “Tijuana mariachi techno” and “the white-with-heat horizon.” A bravura passage about halfway through is practically a little aria of scents remembered from a long-ago motorcycle ride. And the frequent interjections of colloquial Spanish are not just tokens of cross-cultural street cred; they add such music and verve to the prose that after a while even the most timid Anglo reader will feel like sneering and tossing off fiery oaths.
Urrea’s hand in conjuring this family is so sure, and his prose so joyful, that it takes a while for some reservations to surface, but they do. The pace slackens noticeably as the book approaches its ending, a situation which is made worse by the introduction of an appallingly misplaced plot thread that nearly spoils the book’s denouement.
And for all its flamboyance, Urrea’s novel has an uncertain relation to ethnic identity. The book’s secret protagonist is the father figure’s half brother, inevitably named “Little Angel,” who brings an outsider’s perspective and a measure of ambivalence to the festivities. A self-exiled half-American college professor — and proxy, one suspects, for the author — he is distrusted by the rest of the family, who don’t “like his ease with that world of fancy pale” people up north. Little Angel is tormented by a desire to prove himself fully Hispanic, not just the “culture thief” and “fake Mexican” his family sees.
This dichotomy, which has manifested in Urrea’s fiction before, finds a paradoxical release in the novel’s full-throated enactment of a Latinx culture, one so exuberant that it begins after a while to feel . . . performative, perhaps even to the edge of caricature. The women are all sensual and hot-tempered, the men macho and profane; the de la Cruz family is poor, but happy. It’s not a shallow, lazy set of cliches — it’s a powerfully imagined, fully inhabited set of cliches. Torn between his independence and his heritage, Urrea enacts, through his creation, a hyper-Latino celebration so extreme that it erases this painful disjunction. In doing so, the book raises uncomfortable, if fascinating, questions: Is finding parallels between an author and his characters ever legitimate? Is there a hierarchy of ethnic authenticity? Is it possible to over-perform identity? Does iteven matter?
These questions may seem arcane in this largely positive review, but the problems they suggest are inextricably linked to the novel’s central virtues. That’s okay, though. A flawed if ambitious and energetic book, one that troubles and questions and confronts, is more admirable than one that is highly polished but timid. “The House of the Broken Angels” falls emphatically into the former category. It is a book about a celebration that is, itself, a celebration.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown. 326 pp. $27