Angels by Denis Johnson

It's rather heart wrenching in this T.S. Eliot wasteland of a world that the proverbial grass isn't always greener for a young, overwhelmed mother of two ditching her abusive husband by hopping on board a Greyhound out of Oakland bound for what she couldn't have possibly envisioned when she bought her ticket would become a trip toward worse victimization, along with the loss of the children she was seeking to protect. Her name is Jamie and she's an emotional wreck.  Of Miranda Sue, her youngest child, constantly crying, she wishes (brace yourself) that "she could smother" her.  Call Denis Johnson a jerk, if you must, for sinking his teeth into some dark feelings and human frailties that most of us are content keeping down however we have to, repressed.  Which is not to say that most of us are emotionally repressed, but that most of us have some cozy mental filters in check that prevent us from admitting to the world that, in an acute crisis, we'd like to kill our kids just to make them shut up for once so we could finally have some much needed peace and bleeping quiet.  But those filters are absent in Jamie.

One of my favorite Vintage Contemporaries' book covers
Couldn't those nincompoop nuns sitting across from Jamie, making their catty remarks about her unkempt, "white trashy" appearance and questionable (though honest!) maternal instincts, have instead shown some appropriate Christian compassion and asked her if they could be of some assistance to her in her obvious time of need?  No.  Because this is Jamie of Denis Johnson's Angels the smarmy Sisters are staring at, not Whoopi Goldberg of Sister Act.  So forget about ideal behavior by anybody and forget about a happy Hollywood ending too.

Of course, once the nuns disembark the bus, and Jamie accepts alcohol out of a flask from an overly-friendly man, Bill Houston (what a classy introduction) and then impulsively decides it would be a good idea to entrust both herself and her kids into this stranger's care with no strings attached (ha!), could she have honestly expected anything better than a bad outcome?  But desperation, being on the run, lack of available funds and the exploited fear of homelessness have a regretfully nasty way of making prey out of the best-intentioned people and their defenseless offspring.

Need I speak of the predictable ensuing drug addiction Jamie will endure (in full view of her kids) after she's drugged almost unconscious by her future death-row "savior" for the production of back alley pornographic entertainment?  Oh her savior is an angel all right!  Nice dark irony there, Mr. Johnson, titling your debut novel "Angels".  Good one.  For there's not an angel in sight in Angels, except for maybe the darkest angel's, Bill Houston's, public defense attorney who does everything in his limited (naw, let's call it "impotent") legal "power" to keep his client from the gas chamber.

What's so miraculous for me about Angels, is how Denis Johnson believably transforms, out of the unforgivable actions of Bill Houston -- a murderer of a retired cop; a botched bank robber; a car repossession impersonator; a jack-of-all-crimes -- in essence a human demon redeemed into a humane human being, as he dries out and contemplates what put him in prison, and experiences real remorse for the unspeakably evil roads he belatedly realizes he shouldn't have taken.  He examines his squandered life, and feels pain for his victims.  Is it an act?  Is it real?  His interactions with his fellow death-row inmates and the guards would seem to indicate it's genuine, as he waits to die for a shockingly short time on death row while the revved up political machinery aims to make a swift example of the cold-blooded cop killer for all future would-be killers to witness and, presumably, to take heart, lest they too some fateful day pull that hypothetical trigger next time they're tweaking out in the oppressive heat of an Arizona desert.

"Just don't kill a cop," the sheriff's and politician's manipulation of the criminal justice system in its ridiculously speedy gas chamber cowboy justice ("yee-haw!") seemingly proclaims, "or else we'll kill you faster than a dratted rattlesnake's venom will, Pardner!"

Denis Johnson wields a style so simple and straightforward it can be confused with being simplistic.  But that would be inaccurate testimony regarding this exceptional, earthy writer. I was deeply touched by Angels.