October 14, 2013

My Kind of Town: "Angels" by Denis Johnson

My Kind of Town: A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month throughout 2013 and '14, CCLaP critic Travis Fortney is reading a series of classic and contemporary books set in Chicago, not only to understand his new adopted hometown better, but to learn more about the origins and nature of the so-called "Chicago Way." For a longer introduction to this series, please click here, or visit here for the complete list.)

Denis Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2009 novel Tree of Smoke, but he probably remains best known for the 1992 cult classic Jesus' Son, a short collection of stories chronicling the downward spiral and spiritual yearnings of a group of drug addicted wanderers. It's well known that Johnson drew inspiration for Jesus' Son from personal experience. In the 1970's, Johnson attended the University of Iowa, where he apparently became pals and regular barroom companions with revered writer and raging alcoholic Raymond Carver. By the time Johnson left Iowa, his alcohol problem had progressed to the point that it required multiple hospitalizations. He'd also become a published poet and developed a taste for heroin, though Johnson has explained in the past that he was never a full-blown addict, because he didn't have the stomach to fully devote himself to chasing down drugs. Johnson has been sober since 1983 and is a born again Christian in the AA mold, which accounts for the spirituality that infuses much of his writing.

But I digress. A less well-known item in Johnson's bio is that in the mid-to-late seventies, before he had found sobriety and God, he briefly settled in Chicago, taking a one-year teaching position at Lake Forest College. I thought that Johnson's 1983 novel Angels--which he started writing during or just after his Lake Forest stint and finished years later, after a two year stretch teaching creative writing at the state prison in Florence, Arizona--was worth revisiting as part of this series.

The heart of Angels takes place on the mean streets of Chicago, and it's worth picking up a copy of the novel to see what our city--at least the 1970's version of it--looks like through Johnson's junkie poet eyes. Angels is the story of two lost souls--Jamie Mays and Bill Houston--who meet on a Greyhound bus. Jamie is fleeing Oakland and an abusive husband, and Bill--a world-weary ex-Navy, ex-con, alcoholic--is headed to Pittsburgh for some "high old times." Jamie joins him, which proves to be a bad decision. They spend several days in Pittsburgh in an increasingly dangerous state of inebriation as Bill blows through the last of his money. At the beginning of the book's second chapter they have separated. Bill comes to in a bar and has no idea where he is, but when the bartender says the word "here" with a certain inflection, it causes Bill to exclaim "Chicago!"

The best part of the novel--at least for a Chicagoan, and especially a North Side resident like myself-- happens when Bill stumbles out of the bar and finds himself on Wilson Street in beautiful Uptown. "Where had Chicago come from?" he wonders. "It frightened him in his mind to wake up in unexpected towns with great holes in his recollection, particularly to understand that he'd been doing things, maybe committing things." Bill proceeds to wander the city streets drunkenly, trying to "draw near two women in overcoats carrying purses." He follows the women down Wilson, then follows them up Clark Street. On Clark, he realizes that "the time and place were all wrong for a purse snatch, and the real crime was not revealed." He then comes to "a little hardware place crammed with everything necessary for the good life", which can be no other hardware store than the Crafty Beaver store on Clark and Lawrence, where he proceeds to commit a terrifying robbery.

With his new influx of cash, the city is Bill's oyster. He comes to next at the Dunes hotel on Diversey. "When he sat up and put his feet on the cold floor, the darkness seemed to rush up suddenly against his face and stop there, palpitating rapidly like the wings of a moth. He went over to the window and took a look out[...]. The street out there was a mess of things--trash and rust and grease--all holding still for a minute. In his mind he was wordless, knowing what the street was and what he was, [...] a drunk and deluded man without a chance."

Meanwhile, Jamie, abandoned in Pittsburgh, makes the disastrous decision to follow Bill to Chicago. Guess where she winds up? "Clark Street at nine PM was a movie: five billion weirdos walking this way and not looking at each other, and every third one had something for sale. Moneylickers; and black pimps dressed all in black, and a forest of red high heels." Jamie seeks Bill out amongst people who don't look at all legitimate, and is eventually approached by a man in a red velvet suit who gives her drugs. Jamie gets in a cab with Mr. Redsuit (thankfully traveling away from Uptown) and is the victim of a brutal and graphic rape.

When Bill eventually finds Jamie at social services, he considers murdering her rapists, almost coolly. "Two reasons I wouldn't waste those guys," he says. "One, I just don't want to cross that line. I don't know what's on the other side of it." But once that line is in the sand, its a foregone conclusion that Bill will cross it. Bill's other reason for not committing murder is that he doesn't know whether it would change anything for the better. Jamie takes Bill's hand and tells him he's a good person. Bill tells Jamie that he loves her.

Shortly thereafter, the two leave Chicago and rejoin the rest of the Houston clan in Phoenix, AZ. Bill has called his brother "looking for some shit to get into." Bill's brothers have the same kind of badness in them that Bill does. But rather than sum up the entire plot, I'll just say that in Phoenix Bill does have opportunity to step up to the line in the sand, and he crosses it. The novel's final scenes take place, alternately, on death row and in an insane asylum.

Angels can feel melodramatic at times, but it's well worth reading, not only as extrapolation of the isolation and disgust that creeps into everyday urban life, but as the first major work by a great American author.

Filed by Travis Fortney at 4:59 PM, October 14, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |