Denis Johnson’s first novel Angels is a terrifying book. It’s scary how good someone can be in their first big swing at fiction, though his three previously published volumes of poetry surely helped to hone the crackle of his prose. But mostly, it’s scary to read a book that’s relatively short, seems small in scope, and ends up encompassing just about everything and everyone, in a way that leaves you utterly breathless. I know, I know—that sounds grandiose. But it is; it’s a walloping gut-punch of a book. And while most of Johnson’s fiction falls under the same category, it seems particularly distilled here in this slim novel, as if this story gave Johnson no choice but to tell it.
Angels picks up with the story of Jamie, a youngish mother of two small girls, as she hops on a Greyhound to flee her cheating husband with the two kids dragged along (very much baggage in more than one sense). That Jamie is so nonchalant in her disdain for having to take care of these kids is just one of the things that makes her hard to sympathize with—an interesting choice on Johnson’s part, to open the book with what appears to be a protagonist who is simply difficult to like. She’s poor, with little to her name and little to travel toward, yet so infantile and gratingly naïve that the only way to feel for this character is to pity her. Jamie meets a fellow pitiable on the bus, an ex-Navy washed-up con named Bill Houston, and the book follows their travels together as they bounce from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Arizona in a series of increasingly tragic acts.
It’s hard to say what draws Jamie and Bill together, besides a shared penchant for booze, drugs, and quick money. They love each other almost instantly, but it’s certainly not a kind of love that would be recognizable to most people—it’s not even recognizable to themselves. I think it’s more than just two broken people propping each other up with the bond of shared suffering; rather, they both sense in the other a desperate desire to become something better, something more than their circumstance, even while they can’t help but fuck it all up again and again and call it “living.”
The second half of the book sees Jamie float to the background a bit, as Bill Houston and his brothers take charge of the narrative with their small-bit criminal aspirations that, inevitably, go horribly wrong. The last thirty pages or so are written in a twisted, Expressionistic way and are horribly brutal—characters waiting to die, or enduring the gruesome wounds inflicted by a life lived too carelessly. And it’s here where Johnson is at his sharpest. These people have done awful things, have refused to accept the responsibilities of adulthood as we know it. They have lived in and among the fringes of society, scraping the bottom without a sense of shame, and yet they are never hopeless. Johnson never denies his characters the chance for redemption, and it’s the most beautiful thing about this book.
Johnson went on to receive a ton of critical praise for his books Tree of Smoke, Fiskadoro, and the short story collection Jesus’ Son, but Angels can really stand among those. It’s an impressive debut not because of implicit potential—you get the sense that he’d already arrived, was just waiting. This is the fierce announcement of a voice that speaks for those who most of us would walk past on the street without a look back. Johnson makes us stop and turn around; he makes us consider why they matter.