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.


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