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Review: Luis Urrea paints a loving portrait of a Mexican-American family in 'House of Broken Angels'

A man dying of cancer plans his own 74th birthday party. Then his mother dies and he has to hold her funeral on the same weekend.

That might not seem like a setup for a warmly hilarious novel, but The House of Broken Angels is, delightfully, just that.

It's the latest book by Luis Alberto Urrea, whose bestselling novels include The Hummingbird's Daughter and Queen of America. His nonfiction book The Devil's Highway was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Born in Tijuana, Baja California, to a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea writes often about immigration and the melding and mutual influence of cultures. Much of his fiction reflects his own life; The House of Broken Angels was inspired, he writes in the author's note, by his older brother, who had to bury his mother the day before his birthday party, while he was dying of cancer.

That's just the situation Big Angel de La Cruz finds himself in. The patriarch of a large, contentious but loving family, he's used to being in charge of things. "There was a time he could make the walls crack with his voice," he recalls, but now that voice is reedy, and he needs help from his wife and daughter just to dress and get into his wheelchair, thanks to the tumors growing "like grapes" in his body.

But his plans for one last big birthday fiesta are well under way — until his formidable mother, América, who is almost 100, summons him to her hospital room, scolds him one last time and expires.

Burying her and celebrating himself in one weekend seems practical to Big Angel, and it gives Urrea a stage on which to play out the epic story of one family.

Although they're set in different times and cultures, The House of Broken Angels reminded me often of Eudora Welty's lovely debut novel, Delta Wedding. Set in 1923 at the Mississippi home of the enormous Fairchild family, Delta Wedding has the same tone of rollicking chaos, masterful storytelling and deep affection for its countless characters that Urrea's novel has.

Big Angel and his family live in San Diego, and he's proud of the success he has found in the United States as an immigrant. He retired as head of the computing division for the city's gas and electric company, and, Urrea writes, "He had never seen a food stamp."

His family's history spans both sides of the border. "His grandfather Don Segundo had come to California after the Mexican Revolution, crossing the border in Sonora on a famous bay stallion called El Tuerto because he had lost one eye to a sniper. He carried his wounded wife into Yuma for help from gringo surgeons. ...

"The de La Cruz family became Mexican again when they went back south in the great wave of deportations of 1932, joining two million mestizos rounded up and sent across the line in boxcars."

Big Angel and his devoted wife, Perla, came back across the line with their baby son, Lalo, and her two older boys, Braulio and Yndio. Daughter Minerva, known as La Minnie, was born in San Diego.

Now, Lalo and Minnie are grown, with kids of their own. Braulio is dead, fallen to gang violence, and Yndio is estranged from the family.

Lalo dresses for his grandmother's funeral in his Army dress uniform: "His little rows of fruit salad ribbons and medals neat, a gap where he had removed his Purple Heart and pinned it on his father." The scars on his grievously injured leg are covered with a dragon tattoo.

That Purple Heart and his service to the United States didn't help Lalo when he was caught driving an undocumented friend across the border. "He was as surprised as everyone else to find that, well, he was not actually a U.S. citizen." Deported, Lalo has sneaked back home to help care for his dying father.

Minnie and Perla are the ones who hold things together, Minnie wisecracking to Big Angel, Perla cajoling him, between them keeping him going. "Getting him dressed was a nightmare of clenched teeth and gangly limbs, everybody terrified of some shattered bone or wrenched shoulder blade," Urrea writes.

But once Big Angel was ready for his mother's funeral, "He felt he looked excellent. Only Minnie knew enough to think he looked like the guy in his giant suit in the old Talking Heads videos."

Dozens of other family members gather for the twin rites of passage. Many are part of Big Angel's daily life: his siblings César and MaryLu, Perla's sisters Lupita and the legendary La Gloriosa, so nicknamed (hardly anyone knows her real name) for her great beauty, still breathtaking in her 60s.

But then there's Big Angel's half brother, Little Angel, flying in from Seattle, where he's a college professor. "He was the footnote to the family, that detail everybody had to deal with when he deigned to appear. Son of an American woman who had been branded in the family legends as the gringa hussy who had taken away their Great Father, Don Antonio."

In Mexico, Don Antonio was a motorcycle cop, a hero to his children — until he abandoned them to grinding poverty to marry Little Angel's mother and live in an American suburb. At the age of 10, asked by his barely familiar half siblings about his name, Little Angel said, "Papa forgot he already used that name, I guess."

Nevertheless, bonds have been forged, and Little Angel is distraught about his brother's illness. He feels out of place among them, but he adores the de La Cruz clan.

He also has some romantic notions about them that Urrea has fun with. Little Angel looks forward to the food at the birthday party: "In his mind, chicken mole and pots of simmering frijoles and chiles rellenos were to be displayed in pornographic lushness. But the reality of the day was folding tables groaning with pizzas, Chinese food, hot dogs, potato salad and a huge industrial party pan of spaghetti. Somebody was allegedly on the way with a hundred pieces of KFC."

When he asks Perla whether she has cooked anything, she declares that after 50 years she's "a refugee from the apron."

"It had never occurred to Little Angel that cooking masterpieces every day had been a chore."

In other ways, though, he's a keen observer, noting of Minnie, "Little Angel saw it even if they didn't: she was the new backbone of the family."

And he's surprised and impressed by his half brother's fierce sense of life, even as it slips away from him: "That ravaged face held two ardent coals — his black eyes shone with mad light, hunger for the world, amusement and excitement. They raged with delight in everything."

Little Angel gets a taste of what his family's life is like when he and La Gloriosa make a visit to Target to pick up Big Angel's birthday cakes. As they goof around and laugh together, Urrea writes, "A white woman stepped up to them and said, warmly, 'You'll be out of this country on your ass very soon,' then stormed toward the dog food aisle."

América's funeral and Big Angel's party offer a rich array of poignant moments and funny ones, like this: "Lots of the youngsters were in the New American Pose: heads bowed, hands at mid chest, looking like monks at prayer, texting their asses off on their smartphones. They snuck selfies and posted them to their social media: ME, AT MY ABUELA'S FUNERAL."

There is darkness, too, as confessions are made, secrets revealed. Big Angel is haunted by nightmares in which he hears the sound of a man's skull cracking and smells fire; Little Angel thinks he sees a gun pass between Lalo and his tough-guy son; a long-haired, muscled man keeps creeping down the street in a fancy white car, but never stops.

Little Angel takes it all in, wrestling with a feeling that the author might well share: "He believed he was celebrating them when he shared stories of their foibles. He felt the burden of being their living witness. Somehow the silliest details of their days were, to him, sacred. And he believed that if only the dominant culture could see these small moments, they would see their own human lives reflected in the other."

Or, as Big Angel tells Minnie, "Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com
or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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