Thursday May 7th, 2009

Angels by Denis Johnson

angels-by-johnsonStarting here, I’ll occasionally recommend older books on the blog, in a form somewhere between what you see on The Shelf and The Backlist.

Denis Johnson is perhaps best loved by readers for his 1992 collection of clipped, hallucinatory druggie stories Jesus’ Son. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke, an epic novel set against the Vietnam War. And his latest, a slender homage to noir called Nobody Move has been getting praise.

My favorite book of his is his first novel, Angels, published in 1983. It’s one of the most original novels I’ve read, poetic but propulsive (an endangered combination). Following socially marginal characters, it’s heartbreakingly sad and suddenly funny, leaving you feeling like you might if you listened to the dialogue from Raising Arizona while strolling through an exhibit of Dorothea Lange photos.

The story follows Bill Houston (always referred to by first and last name in the novel), an ex-Navy man, one of three brothers who are troublemakers mostly because they’re a bit too dim to be anything else, and Jamie Mays, a mother of two young children fleeing an abusive husband in California. The two meet on a cross-country bus, making their way to the Rust Belt before heading back west to spend time with Bill Houston’s family in Arizona.

Johnson has a perfect instinct for when to leaven the grit with a laugh, but he doesn’t flinch when his hardscrabble, self-destructive characters get themselves into trouble. Jamie’s encounter with a con man in Chicago leads to her being drugged and raped, and the reader sees the danger of her trusting him long before she does. Soon after that attack, Bill Houston tracks her down, and Johnson exhibits an uncanny ability to mix tones:

He found her at the Children’s Services Division in the afternoon, napping in a chair of torn-and-taped imitation leather. Baby Ellen lay in her lap, and a few chairs away Miranda disputed with a little baldheaded boy about the possession of a coloring book. The place smelled like an ashtray. Everybody was black or foreign or deformed. There were people with crutches and people clutching soiled magazines to their chest, and children all around them. He leaned close and said, “Jamie,” hoping he was being quiet enough.

When she opened her eyes she said, “I been looking for you.”

“Well, you found me. How about us getting out of here?”

“I got to fill out some more forms, I think.” She looked around, apparently trying to locate herself among these others.

“Shit. Once they start you on filling out forms, it just don’t ever end.” He tried to think of a way of explaining to her that even now, as the two of them dawdled here, these people were inventing the forms that would defeat her grandchildren.

Here’s Jamie again, speaking to a panel of four people, trying to prove her sanity, hoping to be released from a psychiatric ward, where she’s had delusions, among other things (thus the comment about the Empire State Building):

“How are you feeling today?” the Welfare lady asked.

“Nervous,” Jamie said.

Nervous was the wrong word. She could see that instantly.

“I mean, I have my problems,” she said, “but I don’t think this is the Empire State Building, or anything like that.”

They shifted in their seats.

“You’re just nervous about being here,” Dr. Wrigley said.

“You got it,” Jamie said.

Everybody nodded. When she said the wrong thing, the bodies shifted. When she said the right thing, the heads went up and down.

Dr. Wrigley wasn’t the only man with a chart. There was another, Dr. Benvenuto, who flipped his pages and said, “Jamie, what do you see yourself doing ten years from now?”

She closed her eyes and it came before her like a vision. “I’ll be watching a color TV and smoking a Winston-brand cigaret.”

That made their heads go up and down wildly. They loved that one.