Angels — Denis Johnson

by Edwin Turner

Angels, Denis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.

Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.

The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”

Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.

And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.

Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.

The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.

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8 Responses to “Angels — Denis Johnson”

  1. I’m glad you made it through and came out positive about it. There’s a part of me that still thinks the whole first half, before Arizona, could have been different while still reaching the same second half. I know that isn’t a good way to critique something, treating the author like a waiter who got yr order wrong, but on the other hand it was his first novel and I think he has improved a lot since writing it. It’s interesting to think about the virtues of writing a scene so horrible that it makes the reader want to stop halfway through. On one hand it’s definitely an accomplishment but on the other hand I’m sure plenty of people did just stop reading it, never reaching the very satisfying ending.

    On another note, I wonder why more of his books aren’t adapted into films? Jesus’ Son was pretty good and I think this one could be also. That bank robbery scene is just begging to be filmed.

    • I get what you’re saying about the first half (and I kind of like your waiter analogy)–it’s almost a bait and switch. I think that the end of the novel is so powerful that it makes up for any false starts though. I literally cried a few tears when the prison guard brought champagne for them to drink before the execution.

      As far as the film thing–yeah, Angels has a real cinematic feel to it. I also thought Jesus’ Son was pretty good (and really underrated). Your comment made me check Denis Johnson’s IMDB page, and he’s got two other credits, including a film called Hit Me that looks pretty cool —
      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116538/

  2. Thanks for this! Angels has been on my shelf for over a year now, maybe I’ll finally pick it up now. Looking forward to it.

  3. I often marvel at Denis Johnson’s language, detail, and dialogue. Also no one captures moments of clarity and revelation better (as your review points out). However, he’s a writer than often simply can’t hold his narrative together. In books like “Tree of Smoke” and “Already Dead” you can feel the book slipping away from him, and us. In that light, “Angels” is definitely one of his best books, because it’s slim enough and sharp enough to stay focused until the end–its a horrible kind of perfect. Anyhow, I’m very glad to see you reviewing it here, because these are the early titles that are often overlooked and obliterated by the big, important, prize-winning, and worse titles of later years.

  4. Love this book and appreciate the write up. I have to disagree, however, with your take on his humor. You say, “he never risks tipping into humor” and that Johnson’s humor “rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension,” but I laughed all the way through the book. He’s cracking jokes throughout the whole thing, including the rape scene, the bank robbery, and the execution. It’s a weird, dark sense of humor, to be sure, but to suggest it never shows up strikes me as a misreading. One of Johnson’s great strengths, perhaps his greatest strength, is his ability to mix tones. It’s part of what gives his books such a otherworldly, dreamlike quality.

    Take for example Johnson describing Bill Houson’s heartbeats during his execution: “Boom! Was there ever anything as pretty as that one? Another coming…boom! Beautiful! They just don’t come any better than that. He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realized he was taking it. But it was all right. Boom! Unbelievable! And another coming? How many of these things do you mean to give away? He got right in the dark between heartbeats and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn’t going to come. That’s it. That’s the last. He looked at the dark.”

    Johnson is pretty much the only author who could pull this off. He’s lacing pure, existential terror with humor and euphoria. That “How many of these things do you mean to give away” is the real kicker. He does this sort of juggling throughout the entire novel.

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