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The most critically acclaimed, and first, of Denis Johnson's novels, Angels puts Jamie Mays -- a runaway wife toting along two kids -- and Bill Houston -- ex-Navy man, ex-husband, ex-con -- on a Greyhound Bus for a dark, wild ride cross country. Driven by restless souls, bad booze, and desperate needs, Jamie and Bill bounce from bus stations to cheap hotels as they ply the strange, fascinating, and dangerous fringe of American life. Their tickets may say Phoenix, but their inescapable destination is a last stop ...
The most critically acclaimed, and first, of Denis Johnson's novels, Angels puts Jamie Mays -- a runaway wife toting along two kids -- and Bill Houston -- ex-Navy man, ex-husband, ex-con -- on a Greyhound Bus for a dark, wild ride cross country. Driven by restless souls, bad booze, and desperate needs, Jamie and Bill bounce from bus stations to cheap hotels as they ply the strange, fascinating, and dangerous fringe of American life. Their tickets may say Phoenix, but their inescapable destination is a last stop marked by stunning violence and mind-shattering surprise.
Denis Johnson, known for his portraits of America's dispossessed, sets off literary pyrotechnics on this highway odyssey, lighting the trek with wit and a personal metaphysics that defiantly takes on the world.
In the Oakland Greyhound all the people were dwarfs, and they pushed and shoved to get on the bus, even cutting in ahead of the two nuns, who were there first. The two nuns smiled sweetly at Miranda and Baby Ellen and played I-see-you behind their fingers when they'd taken their seats. But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she'd turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can't talk to a Catholic. The shorter nun carried a bright cut rose wrapped in her two bands.
Jamie sat by the window looking out and smoking a Kool. People still crowded at the bus's door, people she hoped never to meet — struggling with mutilated luggage and paper sacks that might have contained, the way they handled them, the reasons for their every regretted act and the justifications for their wounds. A black man in a tweed suit and straw hat held up a sign for his departing relatives: "THE SUN SHALL BE TURNED INTO DARKNESS AND THE MOON INTO BLOOD" (JOEL 2:31). Under the circumstances, Jamie felt close to this stranger.
Around three in the morning Jamie's eyes came open. Headlights on an entrance ramp cut across their flight and swept through the bus, and momentarily in her exhaustion she thought it was the flaming head of a man whipping like a comet through the sleeping darkness of these travellers, hers alone to witness. Suddenly Miranda was awake, jabbering in her ear, excited to be up past bedtime.
Jamie pushed the child's words away, afraid ofthe dark the bus was rushing into, confused at being swallowed up so quickly by her new life, fearful she'd be digested in a flash and spit out the other end in the form of an old lady too dizzy to wonder where her youth had gone. A couple of times she tried to shush Miranda, because the baby was sleeping and so was everyone else on the bus, except the driver, she hoped — but Miranda had to nudge Baby Ellen with her foot every two seconds because she wanted to play, right in the middle of Nevada in the middle of the night. "Randy," Jamie said. "I'm tarred now, hon. Don't wake up Ellen now."
Miranda sat on her hands and pretended to sleep, secretly nudging Baby Ellen with her foot.
"Move your foot, hon," Jamie told her. "I ain't playing. Move your foot now."
Miranda feigned sleep and deafness, her foot jerking in a dream to jostle the baby.
"Move — yer — fut," Jamie whispered fiercely, and grabbed her ankle and moved it. "You behave. Or I'll tell the driver, and he'll take you and put you off the bus, right out there in that desert. Right in the dark, with the snakes. You hear me?" She jerked Miranda's foot away again. "Don't you play like you're asleep when I can see goddamn it you ain't!"
She stared with hatred at Miranda's closed eyes and soon realized the child had fallen asleep. The weightlessness of fear replaced the weight of anger as the bus sailed down the gullet the headlights made. She put her hand over her face and wept.
In a little while she fell asleep, and dreamed about a man drowning in a cloud of poison. She woke up and wondered if this was a dream about her husband, or what? — a dream about the past, or a dream about the future?
Baby Ellen wouldn't stop screaming.
Jamie held her in one arm, searching beneath the seat with her free hand for the travelling bag, then in the travelling bag for Baby Ellen's orange juice. "There there there there there," she told Baby Ellen. "Have a crib for you soon, and a string to tie on your music box with, and Mama and Miranda'll come sing to you when it's bedtime, and here's your orange juice, thank goodness, there there there there there, little Baby Ellen, oh that a good orange juice, such a serious orange juice, such a serious look, oh, see the pretty sun? See the sun over there, Baby Ellen? That's just a little bitty part of the sun, pretty soon Baby Ellen see the whole sun and then it's morning time for Baby Ellen and Mama and Miranda Sue." She wished she could smother the baby. Nobody would know. They were four days out of Oakland.
She fed Baby Ellen her orange juice and watched the sun as it moved into prominence above the dead cornfields in Indiana, the light striking her face painfully as it ticked over the frozen pools and the rows of broken stalks glazed with ice. Her husband angrily sold stereophonic components for a living. He brooded on his life, and it grew on him until he was rattling around inside of it. Why couldn't she just be thankful to him, he always wanted to know, since he was losing track of what he wanted just so she could have everything she wanted? Couldn't she see how everything kept happening? It was just — he pounded his fist on the wall so the small trailer shook — one moment goes to the next... He choked her close to death twice, frantic to think she couldn't understand his complaint. And she couldn't. He slept almost every minute he was at home. At night, he cried and confessed how everything scared him. Whenever she looked at him he had his face in his arms, hiding from the pictures in his own brain. Finally he'd blown it, their whole marriage. She'd seen it coming like a red caboose at the end of a train.
Cut loose between Oakland and everything...
Angels. Copyright © by Denis Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted January 11, 2012
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Posted July 21, 2009
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