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A Family Confronts Life And Death In 'The House Of Broken Angels'


Luis Alberto Urrea's novel, "The House Of Broken Angels," puts us at the heart of a family that confronts life and death with every breath and a distinct place, San Diego and its sprawling and vivacious Mexican-American neighborhoods, which the author so lyrically describes.

LUIS ALBERTO URREA: All the houses had bars on the windows, beige walls with bits of brick trim, asphalt and gravel shingles on the roofs, four bedrooms and a living room, two bathrooms and a nice kitchen/dining area by the sliding door to the quarter-acre backyard. And myriad garage kingdoms developed as unemployed children came home to mama, (speaking Spanish).

SIMON: I love that section. Luis Alberto Urrea, author of "The Hummingbird's Daughter" and other best sellers, teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago and is recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, joins us from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

URREA: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Premise of this story comes out of your own family, doesn't it?

URREA: Yeah, it does. Three years ago, my elder brother, Juan, died. And it was a strange thing because he had been dying of cancer for a while, and his 74th birthday was approaching. And I believe he knew the outcome. And it became kind of a family plan to throw him a birthday party, which he saw, I believe, as his last birthday on Earth.

And so being a man of strong ego, I think he felt it would be a really nice thing to attend your own wake and orchestrate all the praise that would come towards you. And he did.

SIMON: Now, in your book, Big Angel, Angel de la Cruz is dying, but he - turns out he's not the next in line, right?

URREA: Right. I wish I had invented this, but this was actually from real life. He was my half-brother, Juan Urrea. And his mom was 100 years old, and she died a week before his party. And it threw everything into confusion because nobody in that family and our family is rolling in dough. They can't take two weeks off work. They can't all come across country twice. So he orchestrated to have her funeral one day and his party the next day. So it was an incredibly rich opportunity to ponder mortality, you know.

SIMON: Big Angel, I hope it's not a cheap stereotype to call him a patriarch, but, boy, is he a patriarch.

URREA: Oh, yeah, my brother called himself the patriarch - el patriarca. So he's very much in that mold. And there's a little scene when the party really gets going and Big Angel is sitting there in his wheelchair greatly diminished physically, and people are coming and paying respects and kissing his hand and taking a knee. And that scene that's in the book happened between us. I looked at him, and I said, you're just like Don Corleone, the godfather. And he said, I am Don Corleone.

SIMON: (Laughter) You read that book - what? - when you were a kid on a bus in Mexico?

URREA: (Laughter) I was a kid. Yeah. My first extended trip into Mexico with my father, who was really worried because he saw the United States winning. My mom was of course from New York, kind of a socialite from Manhattan, and my dad, a Mexican, who wanted me to be more Mexican, less American. And I think in his eyes, I was turning into a gringo hippie.

And I was 14, and we took a 27-hour trip to Sinaloa on this bus. And he handed me "The Godfather," and he felt like - I think he was imparting a deep wisdom about being an American. I think to him, "The Godfather" somehow was the key to being an immigrant, the way those Italian families kept their culture but were clearly super American. And so he was trying to find that.

SIMON: Some of the most vivid sections of the book - and I must say sometimes vivid to the point of cringeworthy - are sections when you describe what Big Angel had to do just to get by.

URREA: Oh, yeah. Well, I really had to weigh that kind of stuff, but I thought to honor this man's journey, you know, you should honor all of it. And yeah, some of it was really painful to write.

For me, probably the most painful scene is, you know, his daughter and his wife are trying to bathe him. And he just goes wild, and he starts screaming for his brother to come save him. And his brother comes running in, and the women kick the door shut - don't come in here, and they kick it. And then there's this terrible scene where he's completely vulnerable.

He's nude, embarrassed, trying to cover himself, physically destroyed, and all he can do is keep his eyes closed so he can't see what's happening. And that scene caused me a lot of pain, but I thought if this is going to be a real novel, a really lived novel, we have to walk those readers with us into all of those areas so that the triumphs and the transcendence and the grace that comes in, because it's really a book to me about grace, will have more meaning.

SIMON: At one point, Big Angel's wife asked, what was your favorite part of your life? And he says, everything.

URREA: Yeah.

SIMON: And it just struck me, that's the province of the novelist. And when I say everything, I don't mean the huge events, I mean the details that go into our lives. That's what we remember.

URREA: Oh, yeah. I was always baffled by old timers that I knew who would say, I have no regrets. And I thought, boy, I sure do. But then, you know, as I get older and older, I think it was all part of what Frederick Buechner, you know, in his theology calls the sacred journey, right?

These were lessons we learned or failed to learn from. But when he says everything, it has a lot of meaning for me because his life was not fun. But to be able to have peace at the end and say, yeah, I'm happy I lived, that means a lot to me. I hope to get to exit like he did, you know?

SIMON: Luis Alberto Urrea in Chicago. His novel, "The House Of Broken Angels." Thanks so much for being with us.

URREA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.