Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book review: Angels

Long flights are perfect for short novels. So my 13-hour flight from Shanghai to San Fransisco was an apt interval for absorbing Denis Johnson's disturbing debut novel, Angels. Which I did. Johnson is primarily known for his poetry and his short stories. Angels was published in 1983 and since then Johnson has penned another 8 novels, including the critically-acclaimed Tree of Smoke.

Angels is the story of two souls cast adrift in an American wasteland of booze, violence, and mystic-Christian fanaticism. The novel opens with Jamie Mays and her two young children seated on a Greyhound bus headed east from Oakland, California. Jamie has just abandoned her husband and their trailer-park mobile home. As she conjoins herself and her daughters with the flotsam of discarded America, she meets Bill Houston, an ex-Navy man with "eyes drowning in gin" and covered with tattoos. Bill has a past. The two of them don't so much fall in love as collapse onto one another. A cross-country journey filled with peril and desperation ensues as they make their way, ultimately, to Arizona, where live Bill's superstitious and bigoted mother and his two brothers. One of the brothers makes his living repossessing vehicles from survivalists. The other is a heroin-addict.

You get the picture.

Reading this novel, one can tell that Johnson is a poet. His prose is beautiful and captivating. For example:
“Memories assailed him of how gently she had spoken, touched, and moved; of how she'd loved him fiercely despite his mistakes and obsessions and weaknesses. And the conviction descended on him that love like theirs couldn't possibly suffer any change.”
Shades of Cormac McCarthy, eh? I've heard that Johnson is also an admirer of Raymond Carver and that is plainly evident in the simmering menace that pervades this novel. (The most powerful (and disturbing) scene occurs when Jamie is lured into a low-rent apartment by a man she meets on the streets of Chicago. I won't elaborate.)

But while I certainly won't deny Johnson's eloquence, I felt in the end, that the novel failed to deliver. Angels riffs on the tried-and-true theme of redemption through fire, but I found the denouement lacking. It seemed inconsistent with the rest of the novel.

In fact, I'm not sure it is accurate to call this book a novel. The condensed cast and relatively simple storyline are more befitting a short story or a novella than a full-fledged novel. (Well, Johnson is primarily a poet and short-story writer, after all.)

I did enjoy this book and I will certainly read more of Johnson in the future. But I think next time, I'll try a short story collection.

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