Though only the first act of Denis Johnson’s Angels takes place in transit, the book has the feel of a road novel—specifically, an American road novel. The story is straightforward: Two people, Jamie Mays and Bill Houston, meet aboard a Greyhound. One is in flight from an unfaithful husband, the other is in search of “high old times,” with two grand in his duffel. The two don’t fall in love, exactly, but they do fall in with one another. She brings her two kids along.
Partying in Pittsburgh brings Bill to the end of his money as well as his sanity. He drunkenly blows up a lighter in his hand after failing to bribe a bus driver, and Jamie leaves with her kids. Weeks later, Jamie realizes she “still has some things to say” to Bill and tries to find him in Chicago. She ends up kidnapped and brutally abused by one Ned “Higher-and-Higher,” and Bill comes to her in the hospital after seeing her story in the paper.
Bill and Jamie travel to Phoenix to meet up with Bill’s brothers, James and Burris, and a mutual friend named Dwight Snow. All are hungry for cash and adventure. Dwight, a professed expert criminal with an otherworldly affect, proposes a bank robbery. He wears tinfoil under his trucker hat to “keep out the E-rays.” The brothers defer to his expertise. The outcome is predictable.
James is violent by disposition; Burris is a junkie; Bill himself is a bundle of energies and aggressions. Mrs. Houston, mother to these sons, believes she can see people’s auras, and seeks a prophetic tip from someone who reads tea leaves. Burris’s girlfriend carries around a thick book of pop occultism, and reads aloud about Satan’s dominion while Burris shoots up. While she manages (improbably) to keep her two kids alive, Jamie’s grasp of reality grows weaker with each pill and plastic cup of tequila. Everyone shows signs of belonging to a grim and depressed stratum of American life, one in which the energies of our culture pulsate in a primal form.
After the failed robbery, Burris, high and rattled, finds himself in the darkness of a movie theater where a western is playing. Having sucked down half a fifth of whiskey, Burris
wished he could engage himself in their story—a story of men with guns, exactly like his own, except that nobody going to the movies ever guessed the essential, gigantic, truth of it, which was that these men would trade everything they had for one clear minute of peace.
On screen are the figures who have betrayed Burris and his brothers, but Burris still identifies with them, as co-members of the brotherhood of those who are hunted. The glowing characters on screen, sharp-jawed men who nonchalantly retrieve the bodies of their friends during shootouts, have sold him out for a bankrupt idea of machismo, and Burris is still in their thrall. The social imaginary remains, has not been weakened in the slightest, is invulnerable to the crash of life against it. Burris and his ilk do not have sufficient agency to oppose anything in the gallery of American dreams. They can only believe themselves to have failed in a timeless and valorized pursuit.
What they lack in agency, the Houstons make up for in destiny. The American life manifest in them is beholden to spirits and fates. Mrs. Houston senses the Evil One assuming possession of Bill. Bill meets a child-murderer in prison, who screams a prayer every night for Jesus Christ to “take back [his] suicide.” Dwight, he of the tinfoil-lined trucker hat, takes a lemon spotted with Jamie’s blood after she slipped the knife while halving the fruit. He asks, “You heard of blood rituals? Cannibal rites? . . . This is that. That’s where we are.” He eats the fruit.
Dwight clearly has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to “blood rituals,” but the sight of blood on fruit stirs an idea of something ancient and powerful in him. The America of Angels floats over history and appropriates disconnected facts and symbols for an aggressively presentist mindset. The augurs our characters rely on appear and disappear according to their perceived usefulness. Religion is a DIY affair. Only the reader knows of the more powerful and slow-moving forces of state and capital that render these ramshackle beliefs powerless in the scheme of things.
American in form as well as content, Johnson’s expressionist style marries a world with a voice to produce uncanny pictures of mental realities. Lonely men at a backwater bar are seen “staring out of their faces.” Mrs. Houston, fresh from the spiritualist’s haunt, is relieved by the departure of an ambulance: “The street again put on the aspect of a place where things could only fail to occur.” Earlier, at a bank, she was surprised and saddened to be unknown to a guard at her local branch, because “she had been lovely once, and had never really believed that time would make her faceless.” And here is Jamie, full of murderous rage towards her abusers after her release from the hospital: “This is so real I can taste my own tongue in my mouth.”
For all the darkness and violence of Angels, these characters have other qualities, hinted at by the title: innocence, purity, naïveté, even holiness. Circumstances, historical forces, and fate batter the Houston brothers and everyone in their orbit. Like Burris in the theater, they do not understand the meaning of the events that overwhelm their lives. No one does.
Late in the book, the state of Arizona executes a prisoner by poison gas, its first execution in six years. Above the door inside the chamber is an inscription: DEATH IS THE MOTHER OF BEAUTY. None of the assembled officials, representatives, and guards is sure of what to do. The condemned man “stood next to Brian facing the warden, the doctor, the two guards. Every one of them was terrified. They were all scared to death of what was happening. The warden’s voice trembled.”
Here fate shows itself in the machinations of a state that condemns some to die and others to kill them; each of those present is profoundly innocent of what he is called upon to do. Brian, a guard, suddenly announces to the room that he thinks the condemned man does not deserve death, that he has been healed. “Nobody knew how to react. They all looked around. It was obvious even the warden didn’t know if Brian had just broken a rule.”
At last the condemned man, naked but for his white shorts, is strapped in, and the pellets clink down the pipe into the dish under his seat. The gas is manufactured with a hiss. “A visible vapor was curling up over his knees.” The hour of death has arrived, and in the enveloping darkness we see last flickers of a profound innocence, a sign of the true heart in its last moment. “I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being.”
Martyn Wendell Jones received his B.A. from Wheaton College and his M.A. from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He writes from the Toronto area.