Monday, January 5, 2009

Angels by Dennis Johnson

Today's meal is Angels, Denis Johnson's first novel. It's easy to see his skill as a writer even in this first go round (although I think that he had a successful career in journalism before writing Angels), a skill that has recently won him the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke.

I read this book slowly, a bit each day, as these souls did not digest quickly and easily. I devoured these souls only by unhinging my jaws and working slowly, much as a large snake would while ingesting a small lamb. But as difficult as it was (the difficulty arising from the tortured, messy souls in this novel, not from the writing style), in the end Angels turned out to be a particularly filling repast.

We start off on a cross country bus where we meet the two main characters, Jamie Mays and Bill Houston. Jamie is, poor thing, en route from Who Really Cares to It Doesn't Really Matter. Bill Houston is just en route. She's escaping a disappointing marriage; he is just escaping. Ex-Navyman and ex-con, Bill Houston has no certain destination in life and ends up exactly where fate decrees that he should. Jamie too just drifts into her fate although not with as much acceptance as Bill Houston. I have a very clear idea in my head of these two. People like us see people like them everywhere; Denis Johnson trusts that we do and doesn't go overboard trying to explain them. It's subtle but very clear. Jamie - skanky, stupid and frail, with hair that is too long, too thin, too flat and a voice that is too shrill, too dull, too desperate. Bill Houston - tough, reckless, irresponsible in a little boy way. He's half empty, fueled by alcohol and carrying a lit match. Almost the brains of his own life...but almost doesn't count on cross country buses and in bank robberies. The most generous thing that I can say about these two are they are both Losers. I don't mean "loser" as we generally use the term, creating the letter L with forefinger and thumb. I mean that every roll of life's dice is a losing one for these two.

You've already jumped ahead to the fact that they hook up (it took even less time for Jamie to do so.) They do and begin a self indulgent spree of drifting and drinking, hauling Jamie's two children along with them. Jamie would surely slash my tires for saying so, but she is a shit mother. She and Bill Houston leave the kids with any friendly old lady or motel maid as they scurry off into the night to drink a round or seven and argue about money. This lasts about as long as it does for losers (the thumb and forefinger kind) and they soon part ways.

Distasteful enough, I say. I'd like a sip of water and perhaps a little mint to make it all palatable but I get the sense that Denis Johnson will not provide such gentile fare.

Second course finds Jamie hunting for Bill Houston because she has a few more things that she wants to drunkenly shriek at him. She once again shows us what she's made of by going home with a man she meets at a bus station (what I've learned so far in 2009 - travel is bad news), a man who claims that he knows Bill Houston. This bad decision ends her up drugged, raped, sodomized and nearly killed by this lowlife and his brother-in-law, while his sister watches the two kids in an upstairs apartment. By the time Bill (Houston, by the way) turns up in her life again, she's bat shit crazy as well.

Here we have a sample of her bat shit thoughts:

Beneath her the tiles rippled and breathed. The pulpy surfaces of the walls ripened uncontrollably under her observation, inhaling endlessly like lungs preparing to blast her face with a calling or a message. Stripes and pyramids fell across the air in nearly comprehensible organization, writing that changed just before she understood it, and the room itself became a vast insinuation, swollen with filthy significance. She wanted to catch her breath and wail, but realized that her own lungs were already full. When she exhaled, the room seem relieved of its tension momentarily: she was crushed to remember that this very same action of ballooning and diminishing had been linked to all her other breaths. This terrible, terrible thing that was happening was her breathing.

These were my least favorite passages of the book. It may be brilliant writing (I'm not saying that it is because, frankly, I was lost - and angry about it) but I couldn't figure it out at all and therefore didn't give a crap (I guess that makes it not so brilliant.) There was certainly other examples of what I would consider brilliant writing; well, really brilliant insight into the human psyche. One of my favorite lines was "the weightlessness of fear replaced the weight of anger." I'd never thought about it before I read that line, but fear is a weightless feeling and anger is so very heavy. That's what brilliant writing does, gives voice to feelings we've had but never noticed.

My absolute favorite moment of the novel was after Jamie ends up in a loony bin. Her children are bundled off to the airport by Bill Houston's mom and sisters-in-law, on their way back to their daddy. The oldest, Miranda who is maybe five, has to use the bathroom.

Jeanine took her into the bathroom just this side of the security area. While she waited for Miranda, she looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was starting to grow long again, and she'd just had it permed. Her dress was white on white. She wore red lipstick. Knowing a killer had taught her that she must live.

"Stevie?" Miranda called, her voice echoing out of the stall.

"I'm not Stevie, honey. I'm Jeanine."

"Oh," Miranda said. Then she said, "Jeanine?"

"What is it?"

"Um..." The moment seemed to take place under water. "I'm almost done, Jeanine."

"Good," Jeanine said.

Oftentimes there is one scene, sometimes just a paragraph, that hits home and seems to reflect all the other action of the plot and sums up the whole emotional kick of the theme of a story. This is it for Angels. It echoes the whole sense of loss and uncertainty that Jamie and Bill have been so disastrously dealing with throughout the novel. At an age where Miranda should be bathing in stability and security she is in a airport restroom constantly checking out who is still there for her. We know from this one scene that she'll spend the rest of her life testing her place in society, the durability of her friendships and the fidelity of her loved ones. She'll never be sure of anything nor be able to trust anyone. In short, she is carrying on the tradition of loss. She too will be a loser. The scene still gives me chills and that's good writing.
I would suggest following the reading of Angels with the watching of "We're No Angels" starring Humphrey Bogart. That should help remove the sour cigarette/alcohol/vomit taste remaining in your mind.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

I am not Beepy. Beepy's bloated body washed ashore a few days ago. She's been dead a few weeks, killed, I think, by the inattention of an STD.

I am not Beepy. Where Beepy was gentle, I am rough and cruel. Where Beepy was passive, I am tense and fast. Where Beepy was forgiving, I am hard and angry.

I am not Beepy; I am F-Stop. F-Stop as in "Will you stop it? Can't you just stop it? Why won't you FUCKING STOP?" See? F-Stop. I am also known as The Cleaver, The Clatterer of Bones, Breaker of Spirit, Destroyer of Dreams. But I prefer to be known as The Devourer. F-Stop, the Devourer of Souls to be precise.

The first soul that I bring to you, devoured by my Wrath, is that of Benjamin R. Ford, known to most as Bennie. I came across Bennie in the airport lounge of Jonathan Miles' Dear American Airlines. At first glance, he was angry too. Angry and funny and he appealed to me immediately. On his way from New York to LA to attend his daughter's wedding, Bennie finds himself indefinitely laid over at Chicago's O'Hare Airport waiting for the weather to clear. Bennie's take on the weather differs slightly from that of American Airlines.

Dear American Airlines, since when did you start canceling flights in midair?...We circled O'Hare for an hour before the pilot informed us he was landing in Peoria. Peoria! In my youth I thought Peoria was a fictional place that Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis had cooked up one night at the tail end of a gin bender. But no, it exists. We sat on the runway for more than an hour before a handsome pilot with exquisitely parted hair emerged to tell us that the flight was "officially canceled." Wha? But he offered us all a bus ride to O'Hare "on the house," kind soul that he was, the revealing of which I hope won't endanger his job. Not that I'd worry too much about him: Go ahead and can him, he has a guaranteed second career as a JCPenney catalog model. The (alleged) cause for
this fuckedupedness was (allegedly) foul weather blowing off Lake Michigan but after eight-plus hours in Chicago I can tell you, without a pinch of hesitation, that the weather here is flat-out delightful and you're more than welcome to visit for a round of golf to so verify. Pack some sunscreen.

No wonder Bennie's angry. His only daughter is getting married, he has promised to be there and life has thrown him a sinking curveball full of poop. Now you, who are not cruel and heartless with a sizzling hatred of all mankind, would take this moment to assure Bennie that a daughter's love will forgive what is surely not his fault. Grow a pair and see what's coming next! Bennie has not been the doting husband and attentive father that a kinder fate would have made him. Since his daughter's infancy, he has see her exactly once. Bennie's ex, Stella, took off seeking sunnier pastures and non-alcoholic sheep, as it were. This provokes, for me, the biggest laugh of the book. Bennie, locked out, stands under his wife's window and shouts her name.

Almost instantly, however, I went silent-struck mute by the interior echo. "Oh shit," I finally said aloud. Had Stella been named anything else, and/or had we lived in any other city besides New Orleans, my desperate call would have been just my desperate call. In that alternate universe the neighbors might have peeked from behind the curtains but they wouldn't have laughed or, worse, joined in. But you simply cannot shout the name Stella while standing under a window in New Orleans and hope for anything like an authentic or even mildly earnest moment.

As Bennie's letter of complaint turns into a confessional listing of Bennie's worldly woes, the story loses much of its humor and gains plenty of pathos. If Bennie hadn't already admitted to his booze-addled past, we'd have to imagine that there was one based on what we learn about his childhood. Who among us wouldn't down a gallon or two every night if faced with the uncertainty of Bennie's youth. Am I sounding a bit understanding, a bit soft, a bit "I feel your pain," a bit Beepy? Because I'm not and I don't. Bennie deserves what he gets; I'm just saying that I know why he gets it.

You see, Bennie's mom is nuts. At least she was before a stroke rendered her sane (can that really happen? I have a few coworkers...) I don't think that Jonathan Miles made an in depth study of psychology while writing this book (Bennie either, for that matter.) Mrs. Ford is said to have suffered from schizophrenia but clearly she was manic-depressive in her pre-stroke years. I saw it on an episode of Oprah. It's so trendy! (Sorry to offend anyone who is dealing with this heartbreakin - wait, I am not Beepy. I am F-Stop the Offender, so stet. Suck it up.) Besides all the knowledge I gained from Oprah, Beepy told me that some of her friends are bi-polar (although she herself preferred the warmer waters of the Gulf Coast. Ba-rum-bum.)

Anyway, Bennie the Youth had to deal with his bipolar mom and passive Polish immigrant father. In my favorite passage of the novel, Bennie's dad drives from New Orleans to Nevada in order to rescue his son and wife, who has decided one day to live the life of Georgia O'Keefe. Of course it didn't go so well (it never does when your sanity is regularly upended.)

She would flee, and my father would inevitably fetch her home. Maybe that was always the point: marriage as an awful game of hide-and-go-seek. Maybe my mother never expected, or even intended, to actually escape. After all she was terrible about not finishing her paintings and her suicide attempts were almost
always dramatic half-measures. Standing beside the car in that hot cloud of road dust and tailpipe vapors, her hair tossed by the wind, she smiled at my father and said to him, "I don't know why you always do this."
"I did not know," he replied, with neither tenderness nor bitterness, "that I had choice."

I became very fond of his dad at this point. Such responsible fatalism is hard for a bitter heart like mine to resist. It was a shame to devour his soul but even the virtuous must face the gaping maw of destruction. Better luck next time, Henry Ford (born Henryk Gniech); may you meet a kinder fate in some other novel.

You get the picture by now. Benjamin Ford has a lot to complain about and what starts out as a letter demanding a refund of his $392.68 ticket, turns into a monologue of soul searching. I wasn't expecting it and maybe wouldn't have started reading if I had, but Bennie's soul was tasty and went down smooth. I'll give it @@@.

Oh yeah. Dear Newbury Street, Scrape your fucking sidewalks when it snows!