Saturday, September 25, 2010

ANGELS by Denis Johnson

Here's a big, ten-years-too-late "Thanks, dude" to David Foster Wallace for recommending Denis Johnson's Angels. This is one hell of a first novel. It's a debut so consistently excellent, a performance so perfectly pitched and paced and modulated, that at times I could hardly believe it was a first novel. Johnson published three volumes of poetry before Angels came out in 1983, and that probably accounts for the care and control that characterizes his prose here. He writes a poet's prose, and the book he builds with it is a deeply impressive synthesis of Raymond Carver-like realism, American noir, and a mystically-powered poetic lyricism that's uniquely Denis Johnson's. How good is Angels? It's this good:

It was all right to be who he was, but others would probably think it was terrible. A couple of times in the past he'd reached this absolute zero of the truth, and without fear or bitterness he realized now that somewhere inside it there was a move he could make to change his life, to become another person, but he'd never be able to guess what it was. He found a cigaret and struck a match--for a moment there was nothing before him but the flame. When he shook it out and the world came back, it was the same place again where all his decisions had been made a long time ago.

And Johnson is also blessed with an ear for American speech that almost never errs. I spotted a few false notes: one character says "it doesn't" when he should probably be made to say "it don't"; another character makes an entirely out-of-character allusion to Henry James. But these are minor things that don't detract from such triumphs as the voice of Dwight Snow, a man whose rhetorical style can best be described as "lower-class white American aspirational circumlocution." He says things like "So I made the acquaintance of a fence by the simple expedient of contacting an individual who's just been fucking busted for B-and-E" and "Prospects would be considerably enhanced if I could see to the financing myself." He talks like a poor white trash William F. Buckley. (The real Bill Buckley was, of course, rich white trash.) His voice will not soon leave my head; nor will I soon forget this book's stand-out scenes and images and even minor characters: the red-suited monster who calls himself Ned Higher-and-Higher; the arrest of Burris to the tune of "Like a Rolling Stone"; Miranda looking at herself in the airport mirror near the novel's end. Angels is marvelous, and anyone interested in a grim and beautiful ride into America's depths should climb aboard this bus.

That said, I also want to mention one element of American life that Johnson seriously underplays in Angels: white racism. The segment of American society in which almost all of the novel's characters are trapped--the white criminal underclass--may be the most openly and vocally racist part of our society. I know from personal experience that when these people are in all-white company, the racist remarks fly fast and furious. Many poor white Americans are incapable of speaking for any length of time on any subject without launching into some sort of anti-black, anti-Mexican, anti-(insert Other here) tirade. (This is not to say, of course, that racism is limited to the lower classes. I've heard much the same shit spewed from middle- and upper-class mouths, but the discourse of political correctness has taught the mids and uppers to be more discreet racists.) Angels reflects none of this, and it's a troubling omission in a book that is otherwise highly observant and gets so much else so right.


Joshua Fields Millburn said...

Your review here is spot on, including the racism bit at the end. I just finished "Angels" this morning. It contained some of the best prose I've ever read in a novel. Suffice it to say, "Angels" had a profound impact on me.

Have you ever read "Dead I Well May Be" by Adrian McKinty? It's along the same vein as "Angels," although I enjoyed the story a bit more in McKinty's novel. I highly recommend it. The prose is like poetry at certain moments in the story.

Headed back to "The Pale King" by DFW now. Took a break from it to read "Angels."

Take care,

Joshua Millburn

WTLH said...

I am half way through The Smoke Tree, my first Denis Johnson novel. many years ago I read a short story from Jesus' Son. Good Stuff. I think Angels will be my next adventure into the America of Mr. Johnson. Are you familiar with the work of Harry Crews?

Tom Hancock

Mary Dixon Murray said...

I just finished Angels. It will stay with me for a long while. The paragraph you reference in your review (which I enjoyed - thank you), has been rumbling through my mind since I read it. If you have not already done so (and I am sure you have actually), please read his novella, Train Dreams. It is an amazing work and so forceful I had to immediately re-read it.

Thanks again for your input on this fine book.

Mary Lacey Murray