THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The maladies of body and soul

By John Freeman
October 26, 2008
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A Better Angel
By Chris Adrian
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 227 pp., $23

In the ecology of American literary imaginations, Chris Adrian is one of our oddest, loveliest night-bloomers. His debut novel, "Gob's Grief," told of two brothers heading off to the Civil War. After one is killed, the other becomes obsessed with photographing the souls of the dead. Adrian's recent novel, "The Children's Hospital," a book full of angels and exhausted doctors, unfolded at the end of this world; only a floating children's hospital survives. Those who preach about a culture of life could learn a thing or two from this writer. A doctor and a divinity student, Adrian appears to be haunted by the awful poignancy of children and young men thrust too early into the knowledge of their own mortality.

Adrian's new book, "A Better Angel," stories composed over the past decade, continues and deepens this theme in what ought to be recognized as his best work yet. In a novel, Adrian's lyric tendencies and metaphysical supernaturalism create brilliant but bulging messes. Within the confines of a short story, however, he proves more than capable of reining himself in. Here are stories about a drug-addicted doctor and his guardian angel; a young suicide watching the doctors tend to her failing body; a father baffled at the psychological breakdown of his son. Not one of the stories teeters out of control. They are strange, beautiful, and unforgettable.

Like Kafka, Poe, and Salman Rushdie, Adrian knows the best way to bring the miraculous to life is to write it realistically. In the title story, a doctor finally heeds his guardian angel's warnings that it is high time he visited his dying father. The way Adrian writes it, she appears like a voice of conscience. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," she tells him, at age 6, when he is lifting up a log to see whether there are worms beneath. "A locked door or a feeling of really needing to be alone is no deterrent to the angel," he writes later, when the angel follows him into a bathroom to keep pressing him to go home.

Many of the characters in this book are children, and Adrian understands how the suppression of a terrible loss can cause an outburst of baffling behavior in them. In "Stab," a young boy mourning the loss of his brother, Colm, sneaks out at night and watches his playmate slay small animals. After one of their night raids, the boy returns home and dreams "of horses who bled eternally from their throats, whose eyes held perfect images of Colm, who spoke from their wounds in the voices of old women and said they could take me to him if I would only ride."

The brutality and bloodiness of these stories make them difficult to read in a stretch. Tennessee Williams may have created a glass menagerie out of Southern gothic; Adrian has turned the gulag of modern medicine into a trauma ward. In "The Changeling" a boy whose mother left, and who has spent far too much time watching footage of planes flying into the World Trade Center, comes down with a mental illness. The boy cackles and taunts his father, who begins harming himself, since feeling pain is the only way to bring back his son's old personality.

Survivor guilt, and the havoc it wreaks upon the mind, play an enormous role in these stories. Adrian glances metaphorically at the culture of violence we live in, and the emotional drain this places on people who have felt the unspectacular carnage of true loss. In "A Hero of Chickamauga," a young man whose brother died lies on a Civil War reenactment battlefield, wondering why his family has made this their weekend recreation. In "Why Antichrist?" a teenager whose father was killed on 9/11 befriends a classmate whose father also died earlier. She leads him into a physical relationship that sexualizes the collapse of the two towers.

Seven years on from that day, fiction writers have addressed the attacks of Sept. 11 in a number of ways, but none with the mysterious, metaphorical, blood-in-the-mouth sense of aftermath depicted in "A Better Angel." Sadly, powerfully, the other tales in this sharp-toothed book remind us that the losses which occur every day across America can feel just as traumatic. The death of a close relative can punch a hole in the sky, out of which anything can travel - sometimes the most unthinkable things.

John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.

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