Angels, by Denis Johnson


Denis Johnson is an author I was not familiar with until shortly before reading Angels, but he’s pretty prolific as a writer, and has achieved success in many different genres. Evidently he first made a name for himself as a poet, but he also has written novels, short stories, nonfiction essays, plays, and screenplays. Angels, from 1983, was his first novel, and I take it his most highly regarded one.

I’ve seen Angels described as a postmodern novel, and I suppose I could see that, but it’s not incomprehensible and doesn’t have some kind of wildly unconventional structure or style. It’s written in kind of a choppy style—like maybe Vonnegut?—but isn’t drastically different from a “regular” novel.

Johnson doesn’t always describe things in the most straightforward, literal, most easily understandable manner, and there’s a vague sense of unreality to the book at times, so maybe it’s postmodern in that sense, but at least some of why the book can feel that way stems from its featuring characters who are routinely on drug trips or at least drunk, and in many cases are mentally ill in one way or another.

Jamie is a white trash type (let’s just stipulate that pretty much everyone in this book is white trash, to save time) from a California trailer park, who skips out on her failed marriage and takes her two daughters—a young child and an infant—on a cross-country Greyhound bus trip with only a vague idea of where she’s going or what she’ll do when she gets there.

The kids have only minimal personality or individuality in the book; it’s clear they are about 95% burden to Jamie and 5% actual flesh-and-blood people that she or anyone has genuine feelings for.

On the bus, Jamie hooks up with pretty much the kind of guy you’d picture someone like her hooking up with. Bill is a veteran, kind of a drifter type who does what he needs to do to survive, whether it be petty crimes, small-scale cons, or odd jobs. He has plenty of tattoos, a kind of macho swagger and temper typical of his class and lifestyle, and a strong fondness for the bottle. He’s the sort to be perceived by someone like Jamie as having significant charisma.

They drift in and out of each other’s lives for a while, two losers who sometimes prefer to do their drinking and drug use and scuffling around together, and sometimes have their fill of each other. They spend some time in Pittsburgh and Chicago, and then head down to Arizona, where Bill has family.

It turns out Bill is arguably the most together, stable member of his godawful family. His mother is a superstitious, religious nut with a dubious grasp of reality. Her husband is in a maximum security prison and will be for the foreseeable future.

Bill has two brothers. One is a repo man and small time criminal. The other is a childlike heroin addict with a kooky girlfriend who is into some kind of New Age spirituality.

Bill puts the word out that he’s up for trying his hand at more serious crime. He and his brothers join up with an eccentric guy who passes himself off as some kind of crime savant to plan a bank robbery.

Meanwhile, Jamie goes from bad to worse. As a result of being brutally raped in Chicago, further increasing her drug use and drinking, and spending all her time with people like Bill and his grotesque family, she shows increasing signs of insanity and eventually is institutionalized.

In other words, Angels is basically a freak show.

The book this most put me in mind of—in part because I read it so recently—is Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. Both deal with life on the streets in the urban underbelly of America, centering on a struggling romantic couple.

Angels has nothing like the extraordinary detail of Preparation for the Next Life. Both authors skillfully draw damaged people, but Lish gives you far more of the world they inhabit.

Preparation for the Next Life is hyper-realistic. I could easily imagine meeting in real life pretty much anyone from the book, major and minor characters alike. They talk, act, think, feel, and are motivated like real people.

Angels combines about equal elements of reality, nightmare, and farce.

Each includes an explicit rape scene. That of Preparation for the Next Life is stark, terrible, and evil. So is that of Angels, except that there’s a small part of me that holds back in feeling too much because of a sense that I may feel silly later if I find out it’s intended more as a black comedy American Psycho-type thing.

In general it feels like Preparation for the Next Life just has more heft to it. Which is not to say I necessarily think Angels is not a good book, just that I think Preparation for the Next Life is a better one.

I also have mixed feelings about the way the characters in Angels end up being bigger deals in a sense at the end of the book.

That is, for almost the whole book, they are obscure losers, anonymous nobodies. And that fits them. They’re scummy people who contribute basically nothing to the world, just deteriorating over time through destructive, and especially self-destructive, behavior. On the one hand I felt it was a little gimmicky or inappropriate that they end up in effect in national headlines by the end of the story, as if all the rest was just kind of background for their eventual involvement in much bigger events.

On the other hand, I also see it as conveying the message that just because someone does something, or is in some way connected with something, that draws considerable public attention, it doesn’t mean they themselves are really anything special. A major element of such notoriety is often chance, being in the right place at the right time—or the wrong place at the wrong time—such that it could just as easily have happened to some other formerly equally obscure non-entity.

It’s kind of like my reaction to The Executioner’s Song. Norman Mailer at times seemed to want to paint Gary Gilmore as someone unusually interesting and significant in some way—deep and spiritual, evil and remorseless, someone with a Svengali-like power over a certain kind of woman, whatever—when in fact he was for the most part a dime-a-dozen hoodlum who just happened for independent reasons to become famous (as the first person executed after the death penalty was judicially reinstated in this country).

Johnson does enough well in Angels that I think it’s worth reading, but it’s not a novel that reached me on as deep a level or impressed me as much as some.


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