Patricide: Patricide is a bad idea, first because it is contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide! — member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere. Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him. The enormities go with the job, but close study will allow you to perform the job less well than it has previously been done, thus moving toward a golden age of decency, quiet, and calmed fevers. Your contribution will not be a small one, but “small” is one of the concepts that you should shoot for. If your father was a captain in Battery D, then content yourself with a corporalship in the same battery. Do not attend the annual reunions. Do not drink beer or sing songs at the reunions. Begin by whispering, in front of a mirror, for thirty minutes a day. Then tie your hands behind your back for thirty minutes a day, or get someone else to do this for you. Then, choose one of your most deeply held beliefs, such as the belief that your honors and awards have something to do with you, and abjure it. Friends will help you abjure it, and can be telephoned if you begin to backslide. You see the pattern, put it into practice. Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least “turned down” in this generation — by the combined efforts of all of us together.
From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.
Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.
I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.
Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.
In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—
It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.
Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.
The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—
That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.
Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally ran a version of this review in June, 2011. That review neglected to include the names of the translators, Aylmer and Louise Maude].
In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.
We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—
I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.
Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—
We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.
He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —
Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.
The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.
Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—
The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.
This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—
In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.
A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.
Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–
My Beloved Daughter,
Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.
Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.
I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011. I am currently listening to the audiobook of the Hannah omnibus Long, Last, Happy, and just finished the first section, which contains most of Airships. The audiobook is good, but I wish it was Hannah reading it himself.]
Yuri Herrera’s new novella Kingdom Cons condenses myth and archetype into concrete, brutal noir. Gritty and visceral, but also elegant and surreal, Herrera’s prose bristles with cinematic energy in a tale of blood magic and the relationship between power and art.
In Kingdom Cons, our central protagonist Lobo is a singer of corridos, ballads he improvises in dive bars for a few coins to survive on. Herrera paints Lobo’s backstory in quick but rich strokes that evoke a hardboiled, hardscrabble life:
The next day his father went to the other side. They waited in vain. Then his mother crossed without so much as a promise of return. They left him the accordion so he could make his way in the cantinas, and it was there he learned that while boleros can get by with a sweet face, corridos require bravado and acting out the story as you sing. He also learned the following truths: Life is a matter of time and hardship. There is a God who says Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. And perhaps the most important: Steer clear of a man about to vomit.
In one of these cantinas Lobo encounters “the King,” a Mexican drug lord. Lobo is instantly smitten by the King’s power; or, more precisely, by the aesthetics of power that attend the King. Lobo sees himself as a reader of blood. Indeed, he’s survived the streets by
…learning blood. He could detect its curdle in the parasites who said, Come, come little boy, and invited him into the corner; the way it congealed in the veins of fraidycats who smiled for no reason; the way it turned to water in the bodies of those who played the same heartache on the jukebox, over and over again; the way it dried out like a stone in lowlifes just aching to throw down.
Lobo believes he detects magic in the King’s blood, and vows to become a retainer in the King’s Court, which in time he does. There, in the Palace, he takes up a new mantle. He becomes “the Artist,” a singer of narcorridos he composes to flatter his patron, the King. In the Court,
The Artist realized that people saw him only when he sang or they wanted to hear how tough they were; and that was good, because it meant he could see how things worked in the court.
The Artist’s personality is quickly subsumed into this archetypal Court, which includes the Manager, the Journalist, the Jeweler, the Doctor, the Girl, and the Heir. There’s also the Witch and the Commoner, agents who bring the plot of Kingdom Cons to its climax. There’s a cinematic, page-burner quality to the plot, a briskness that perhaps disguises the novella’s heavier themes of art and power.
Herrera weaves these themes into their own subtle climax. The Artist is initially spellbound by the King, whose very “smile seemed a protective embrace” to the singer. The narcobaron urges the Artist to tell the truth in his corridos, even if the truth is brutal: “Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” And yet in time the Artist begins to parse the layers of distinction to “truth,” and to see the complicated relationship between truth, beauty, and power. He grows into a new art, a new blood.
Indeed, Kingdom Cons is a subtle, spare Künstlerroman, in which Herrera’s hero’s quiet, internal observations lead him to a new artistic outlook. Regarding a slain narco’s corpse, the Artist thinks first that the man probably deserved his death, before appending the notion: “if there’s one thing we deserve, it’s a heaven that’s real.” When the Artist recognizes himself in a “an ashen boy coaxing squalid notes from a trumpet,” he laments “It’s as if there is no right to beauty.” The Artist seeks to create a right to beauty, to secure a heaven that’s real, but his tools are limited—and thoroughly mediated in violence, in blood. Herrera pushes his hero “to feel the power of an order different from that of the Court,” a power that emanates from “his own sovereign texture and volume. A separate reality.” Herrera’s skill as a writer evokes that “separate reality,” first by creating a mythical-brutal narcoland noir, and then by evoking the consciousness of an artist trying to navigate that violence and find his own power through art, through words.
In its finest moments—of which there are many—Herrera evokes his hero’s consciousness in action. Consider the following passage. The Artist has sneaked out of the Palace to return “to the cantina where he’d first met the King”; there, he observes again, becomes eyes and ears that will channel grimy reality into artful storytelling:
…he heard the fortunes and tragedies of the average jack:
The wetback who’d been deported by immigration and was unwanted on this side as well. They’d told him to sing the anthem, explain what a molcajete was and recite the ingredients of pipián to see if he was really allowed to stay; his jitters made him forget it all so they kicked him out too. The narco-in-training who sent bindles of smack over the river with a slingshot and then simply crossed over to pick them up, until one day he got a wild hair and hit a gringo in the head with his whiterock crackshot, and tho that was the end of his business, he still got a kick out of calling himself an avenger. The woman who, to free herself of her cheating husband, sold the house to a much-feared loanshark and left hubby with no house, no wife, and no peace. The boy who faked his own kidnapping to wheedle money from his parents, who believed the ransom note was real and replied, You know what? We’re tired of that bum, how about bumping him off for half the price? And the boy, out of utter sorrow, said Okay, collected the cash, spent it on booze and then kept his word.
The force of storytelling leads the Artist to an epiphany about the King—and, more significantly, to himself as an artist capable of creating a “separate reality.”
I can’t help but think of Kingdom Cons as the third part of a loose trilogy that also includes Herrera’s previous novellas Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. All three are published by And Other Stories and all three are translated by Lisa Dillman, who conjures magic in translating Herrera’s neologisms, slang, and mythical tone. Kingdom Cons extends the mythic-noir mode that Signs initiated and Bodies continued. Herrera is a writer with a voice and a viewpoint, an author whose archetypal approach shows the deep significance to contemporary life’s concrete contours. I wrote “trilogy” above, but to be clear, I’d be very happy if Herrera, Dillman, and And Other Stories kept putting out these fine novellas. Highly recommended.
…I can say with all truthfulness that for me the moment of greatest understanding in which I knew spiritual reality at last came in connection with emergency root-canal irrigation, two hours in the dentist chair. And twelve hours drinking bourbon-bad bourbon at that-and simply reading Dante without listening to the stereo or eating-there was no way I could eat-and suffering, and it was all worth it; I will never forget it. I am no different, then, from Timothy Archer. To me, too, books are real and alive; the voices of human beings issue forth from them and compel my assent, the way God compels our assent to world, as Tim said. When you have been in that much distress, you are not going to forget what you did and saw and thought and read that night; I did nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing; I read and I remember; I did not read Howard the Duck or The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Snatch Comix that night; I read Dante’s Commedia, from Inferno through Purgatorio, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light … and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson’s office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee, and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist’s receptionist.
So for me in a certain unusual way-for certain unusual reasons-books and reality are fused; they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together-nothing is more real than a badly infected tooth-and having done so they never completely came apart again. If I believed in God, I would say that he showed me something that night; he showed me the totality: pain, physical pain, drop by drop, and then, this being his dreadful grace, there came understanding … and what did I understand? That it is all real; the abscessed tooth and the root-canal irrigation, and, no less and no more…
From Philip K. Dick’s 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk’d much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.
Mike Watt and Adam Harvey adapted the “Shem the Penman” episode of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for the Waywords and Meansigns project. Raymond Pettibon provided an illustration.
It is like information theory; it is noise driving out signal. But it is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise. The intelligence agencies call it disinformation, something the Soviet Bloc relies on heavily. If you can float enough disinformation into circulation you will totally abolish everyone’s contact with reality, probably your own included.
From Philip K. Dick’s 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.” I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.
The opening lines hooked me:
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.
The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.
Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:
Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.
Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:
The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.
The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.
Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in May of 2012].
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.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first posted this review in 2010].
“Quickly Aging Here,” a poem by Denis Johnson—
1nothing to drink inthe refrigerator but juice fromthe pickles come backlong dead, or thincatsup. i feel i am oldnow, though surely iam young enough? i feel that i have hadwinters, too many heaped coldand dry as reptiles into my slack skin.i am not the kind to winand win.no i am not that kind, i can hearmy wife yelling, “goddamnit, quitrunning over,” talking tothe stove, yelling, “imean it, just stop,” and i am old and2i wonder about everything: birdsclamber south, your carkaputs in a blazing, dustynowhere, things happen, and constantly youwish for your slight home, foryour wife’s rustedvoice slamming around the kitchen. so fewof us wonder whywe crowded, as strange,monstrous bodies, blindly into oneanother till the bedchoked, and our rangeof impossible maneuvers was gone,but isn’t it because by dissolving like somuch dust into the sheets we are crowdingsouth, into the kitchen, intonowhere?