(Editor’s note: This is the 145th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)
By Steven Nester
In Denis Johnson’s white-trash road novel, Angels (1983), Jamie is on the run from an abusive husband, and Bill Houston, a violent, middle-aged blackout-drunk, is on the run from himself. It should come as no surprise that they share their journey to the dark side; and it’s no jaw-dropper, either, to see that much more is moving this narrative along than a belly full of booze and the boiling-over of low-life desperation.
The trip starts in Oakland, California’s Greyhound Bus station, and it doesn’t take long for the two born losers—she with “make-up too
thick, her pants too tight,” and two babies in tow; and he, with a “pencil-thin mustache that just made her ill”—to bond over warm beer and wisecracks. Jamie gets roped in by Houston’s scoundrelish charms and ditches her plans to stay with relatives in Pennsylvania. Houston, it’s quickly seen, possesses no plans whatsoever. From that point onward, the belching bus is heading downhill and the brakes have failed. But, because of the prose and literary technique of this philosophically bent noir, it’s oh so lovely to watch.
Anything that can go wrong on this steerage-class odyssey, does. Jamie and Houston’s relationship, as haphazard and random as it is, is
tested over and over again, and for some reason, to their detriment, it holds together. The couple is separated in Pittsburgh; Jamie is drugged and raped in Chicago; Houston robs a hardware store, drinks, and screws up until fate finally slaps them both in the face by reuniting them. Houston’s luck—or decision-making ineptitude—comes to a dead end as they alight in the thematically insinuating city of Phoenix, Arizona, his hometown.
It’s here that Houston’s two siblings, plus an acquaintance with the country-western-sounding name of Dwight Snow (“a scholar of armed robbery,” it so happens), plan to rob a bank. But, uh-oh: Houston notices that Snow’s baseball cap is lined with aluminum foil, the universal symbol of a crackpot. Snow should have removed the foil and gotten in touch with a higher power, one who’d have tipped him off to cancel this caper, but these good ol’ boys want one thing—“Money right or wrong,” and wrong it is, beyond their worst nightmares.
Angels, Johnson’s first novel (he went on to write 1986’s The Stars at Noon and 1987’s National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke, the latter of which resurrected Bill Houston), has the veneer of a straight-to-hell crime novel, but once into the guts of the book,
it becomes apparent that Johnson wanted to entertain grad students as well, which is not atypical of a serious artist. The author is also a prolific poet as well as a playwright, and the innovation and originality of language in Angels is obvious: the locutions are fresh and bright, and they resound with a ring of truth that will never tarnish or erode. In the cheap motels where the wandering couple stop, there is “bedding that smelled of sorrow”; Houston’s Oklahoman mother was “unshakably hillbilly”; and in the cheap neighborhood that is Houston’s home in Phoenix, “everything was made of attempted marble.”
Johnson channels his inner-Nabokov to create narrative plot points and observations that display “the kind of coincidence that poets love
and logicians hate,” which all add up to support a theme of death and rebirth that is just about screamed at the end of this 34-year-old novel. A line of poetry is the clue, and it’s inscribed in the gas chamber, allowing the condemned at the last minute to see, but probably not understand, that their death is a component of the natural order of the world and that perhaps some good will result from it.
The slice of poetry—“Death is the mother of beauty”—comes from Wallace Stevens. Its meaning is not for Bill Houston to understand, but for the
benefit of readers alone. It implies karmic quid pro quo: In this case, evil for good.
It’s ironic that while Houston is a directionless alcoholic who’s none too bright, he does have moments of clarity. Earlier in the book he
confronts the condition of his life and, “without fear or bitterness he realized now that somewhere inside 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.” Now that he’s “going up the pipe,” he must know what that move is—death—and he sentenced himself when he murdered a bank guard during the botched robbery.