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You Only Get Letters from Jail

You Only Get Letters from Jail

5.0 3
by Jodi Angel

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Haunted by unfulfilled dreams and disappointments, and often acting out of mixed intentions and questionable motives, the boys turned young men of these stories are nevertheless portrayed with depth, tenderness, and humanity. Jodi Angel's gritty and heartbreaking prose leaves readers empathizing with people they wouldn't ordinarily trust or believe in.


Haunted by unfulfilled dreams and disappointments, and often acting out of mixed intentions and questionable motives, the boys turned young men of these stories are nevertheless portrayed with depth, tenderness, and humanity. Jodi Angel's gritty and heartbreaking prose leaves readers empathizing with people they wouldn't ordinarily trust or believe in.
Jodi Angel’s second story collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail, chronicles the lives of young men trapped in the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood. From picking up women at a bar hours after mom’s overdose to coveting a drowned girl to catching rattlesnakes with gasoline, Angel's characters are motivated by muscle cars, manipulative women, and the hope of escape from circumstances that force them either to grow up or give up. Haunted by unfulfilled dreams and disappointments, and often acting out of mixed intentions and questionable motives, these boys turned young men are nevertheless portrayed with depth, tenderness, and humanity. Angel’s gritty and heartbreaking prose leaves readers empathizing with people they wouldn't ordinarily trust or believe in.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Angel’s second book of short stories, like her first (The History of Vegas), features young men with bleak futures, too immersed in surviving hardships from day to day to ever move beyond them. Whether it’s a character picking up a woman 26 hours after his mother’s death, or someone hanging out with a friend growing an Afghani pot hybrid called “Scarlet Pussy,” or a boyfriend running away with his pregnant girlfriend, the hapless lives Angel depicts are filled with cars, beer, casual sex, and little else. Senseless violence toward animals forms a recurring motif in the stories. The writing is intense and visceral, but the characters are unlikeable; they are passive when it comes to anything other than momentary gratification and refuse to break out of familial histories of self-defeat. Read separately, the stories could be poignant. Collected, they become repetitive and frustrating. The reader hopes each story will reveal something new, different, or hopeful, but the almost interchangeable characters just spin in Angel’s grim, albeit well-rendered, vortices. Agent: Danielle Svetcov, Levine Greenberg Agency. (July)
From the Publisher

"In this accomplished, moving collection of stories about boys, she proves the uselessness of the old dictum that you should write what you know."
New York Times

". . .fall in love with Jodi Angel and her new story collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail. . ."
Esquire Magazine

"Best Book of Summer. . .Prose stripped down to the primer. Dialogue that burns like cheap whiskey. Teenaged guys with dirt under their fingernails and Doritos stains on their shirts trying to keep it together as they lose their mothers to death and drugs, as they lose themselves in a culture that doesn't give much of a damn about men without manicures. Jodi Angel does give a damn: She has these stories to prove it."
Esquire Magazine

". . .Jodi Angel writes with a voice dripping with sweat and Schlitz. You Only Get Letters from Jail is about young men and women teetering on a razor’s bloody edge, living lives in which cheap thrills are the only kind."
Esquire Four

"Angel is an indie-press star."
Marie Claire

". . .Angel bravely does what many writers are afraid to do. In tough, sometimes brutally lyrical language, she gives young, desperate voices—including their slang—full rein of the stage."
San Francisco Chronicle

"[T]hese stories describe the moments of adrenaline and gut instinct that can mark an imperiled adolescent’s first break for something better or set a course for a lifetime on the skids. . .Every time [Angel] dives into this all too familiar world, she surfaces with insights both beautiful and strange."
—Lambda Literary

"A must-read for short story lovers and anyone who was ever a screwed-up teenager.”

"You Only Get Letters from Jail contains first rate fiction, crackling with conflict, high stakes, and drama; it’s a joy to read and definitely one of the year’s best."
—Necessary Fiction

"Angel collects 11 visceral stories focused on the lives of young men who feel and seem trapped by their circumstances."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"That voice is active and highly descriptive, yet never anxious nor panicked. In Letters From Jail, things look grim. But they rarely look hopeless. . .The burn comes from Angel's profound powers of description, which allow a reader to taste a beer that's gone warm during a lakeside outing, smell the burned rubber after a hot rod brakes too quickly or feel the enveloping flesh of an overweight barfly who provides unexpected comfort to the boy who lost his mother."
The Sacramento Bee

"Like a master phlebotomist, Angel manages to hit vein again and again, allowing her hardscrabble narrators grace and particularity rarely aligned with male characters from harsh backgrounds."
The Oregonian

"The prose in Angel’s story collection, all about young men who can’t seem to grow up, has a distinct, dreamy sentimentalism to it; somehow, it seems to hold your hand as you turn each page. But it has teeth, too. She depicts vivid scenes of places you’d never choose to go, and yet, you’d never dare turn away. Nor would you dare forget them. It’s a feat."

"Jodi Angel writes like an angel—in the full sense of the designation--which is to say someone fallen out of the armpit of a restless deity—sharp-eyed, ruthless, and tender at the same time. I'd walk a long way to hear her read these stories, and plan to buy a half dozen copies just so I can give them away saying, 'Look at this. You have never before read anything like this.'"
—Dorothy Allison

"Jodi Angel embodies this pack of low-rent, no-count, hard-luck, heart-tugging teenage boys so thoroughly that one can only conclude she was one, in this or some former lifetime. Plus, she really knows her way around a paragraph. In these stories, child support never gets paid and guns go off too often and deciding to love something almost guarantees its immediate departure or death. These are hard, wonderful, compassion-inducing stories, laced with surprising and surprisingly powerful grace notes, flashes of heat lightning in the dark."
—Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted

"You Only Get Letters From Jail is one of the finest and truest collections of 'American' short stories I have ever read. Set in small towns among muscle cars and grange halls and rock and roll and damaged vets and divorced parents, Jodi Angel's stories explore in sharp and often funny prose the lives of teenagers trying their best to make sense of things in this world that, more often than not, remain inexplicable."
—Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time

“In these charged stories, the young narrators do not understand that they cannot afford their innocence, their tenderness, in these worlds. I was captured by the power of Jodi Angel's fresh, uninsulated prose and I read toward the secret harm in each story like a man who has heard a noise in the other room. You Only Get Letters from Jail is a gripping collection.”
—Ron Carlson, author of The Signal

“Jodi Angel’s tough and elegant stories remind me of the work of Ray Carver, Melanie Rae Thon, and Richard Ford. These are big-hearted renderings of folks struggling to find beauty in a harsh world, the pain of Angel’s characters driven into their potent desire to escape, to find mercy, to be healed. The eleven stories in You Only Get Letters from Jail are radiant with wise and powerful drama, serious, earnest, and true.”
—Alan Heathcock, author of Volt

Product Details

Tin House Books
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

You Only Get Letters from Jail
The Eberhardts’ daughter disappeared the same week they started going to the movies every night to watch the 7:15 showing of The Exorcist, and it didn’t take long for word to get around that instead of sitting by the phone and waiting for her to call, they were sitting in the dark, watching that possessed girl slam some priests around her room. Suzy Eberhardt disappearing was sort of Page 3 news for everybody—she was the kind of girl who didn’t put much stock in curfews and rules, and most of our parents defined “bad crowd” based on who Suzy Eberhardt was with. Everybody knew that she had probably taken off with some guy and would roll home when the money ran out and act like it was no big deal. I hadn’t thought much about it until Ricky Riley asked my brother to give him a ride out past the dam, him and this girl I knew from school, and I found myself down a dirt road, drinking warm Lucky Lager on a Saturday.
Ricky Riley had been to Vietnam and was fucked in the head, or at least that’s what my brother said, but my brother worked the graveyard janitor shift with him at Mercy and they hung out and were friends. Some people said Ricky hadn’t gone to Vietnam, he had just disappeared and run off up north when the draft came around, and some people said he had been drafted but couldn’t pass the competency test, and some said his draft number had never come up in the lottery anyways. All I knew was that it was ninety degrees outside and Ricky had on a jungle jacket that had somebody else’s name on it, and sometimes he walked with a limp, and he had enough money to buy beer but not fix his van, and he was older than my brother and with a girl I went to school with who told us in the car that she was with Ricky because she didn’t have anything better to do.
“Me and Suzy Eberhardt go way back,” Ricky said. We had the doors opened on my brother’s Duster and he had the hood up so he could show off his 360 and the rebuilt six-pack carb setup to Ricky, who my brother felt should have been sorry for driving a Ford. Debbie from school was sitting in the front seat, playing with the radio, trying to tune in something besides static or country, and I was on my third beer and thinking about wandering down to the lake. I thought maybe I could smell its shoreline like wet thick green, heavy and bug-filled, but guaranteed to be cooler than sitting on the vinyl seats or under the scrub oaks, which were too thin to give more than a weak circle of shade. The trunk was full of gas cans and beer and I was bored and a little drunk and tired of waiting for the sun to set so I could see what Ricky had in mind.
“Do you know where she’s at?” my brother asked Ricky. I could tell that he was only half listening because he was focused on the verbal tour of his Plymouth and I had heard his speech enough to know it by heart—he was waiting to get to the good parts: TorqueFlite 727 three-speed reverse valve-body automatic, 8 ¾ posi axles with Mickey Thompsons front and rear.
Ricky took a long swallow from his bottle and ran the back of his hand over his mouth. He had let his dark hair grow long and when he leaned forward, he had a habit of tucking the front behind his ear so that he could see and it had become sort of a rhythmic habit—the farther he leaned, the more he tucked, like a one, two count.
“She’s dead in her house,” he said.
My brother stepped back from the open hood and I could hear his tennis shoes bend and break the bunchgrass beneath them. Everything around us was a faded yellow, miles of it drifting in soft rises broken only by the occasional grouping of trees, piled rocks, and the purple needlegrass that would give way to sheep sorrel down where the ground got soft by the water. Everything smelled like star thistle and baked red dirt.
“You’re full of shit,” my brother said.
To the west the yellow hillside fell away in a gentle decline and in the distance we could see the lake, a flat blue expanse with the sunlight rippling and breaking in hard angles off the surface. We were too far away to see if there were people, and on the wrong side of the shoreline to see boats. All of the action was somewhere out of sight. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been out to the lake, even though it wasn’t more than a forty-five-minute drive from town. There was no reason to go. We didn’t have a boat, I didn’t know anybody who did, and there were closer places to swim and fish.
“You ever met her parents?” Ricky asked.
My brother had stepped away from the front of the car and was headed to the back, where a case of beer was split open in the shade under the overhang of the trunk. Ricky had pointed the route out, directing my brother through rights and lefts and then finally down a dirt road that thinned out and became nothing more than tire tracks cutting a single-lane path until it emptied out on a crushed circle of grass by rock piles that were growing weeds in the sun. The tire tracks continued in front of the parked car for another twenty feet or so and then disappeared. There were beer bottles and faded cans and wrappers, evidence that we weren’t the first ones to hang out there and probably wouldn’t be the last, and I wondered if maybe people parked there to fish, but it seemed like an awful long ways to hike down to get to the water.
“I’ve seen the Eberhardts in town,” Kenny said. “I know who they are.”
“Total religious freaks,” Ricky said. He leaned against the front of the car and started rubbing at his right thigh, the one he favored on the times when it seemed convenient to limp.
“My girlfriend says they’re going to the movies every night now, ever since about the time Suzy disappeared. Summer Horror Fest.”
“They killed her,” Ricky said. “Went crazy with their religion bullshit and took it upon themselves to get the devil out of Suzy.”
The radio jumped to life through the four speakers and the sudden noise made me slop beer onto the front of my shorts. Debbie had found some distant rock station to flood the hillsides with, the Eagles doing “Lyin’ Eyes,” and she swung her legs out of the passenger seat of the car and walked to the back to pull a beer out of the case.
“Do you make this shit up all by yourself, or does somebody help you?” she asked Ricky.
“Why don’t you go sit back in the car,” Ricky said. “I like you better when you don’t talk.”
A breeze climbed up over the hillside and pulled itself across our circle and in it I thought I could smell something burning, like smoldering grass or barbecues across the lake, but I knew we were too far away to smell anything but weeds and the faint hope of water.
“Go fuck yourself,” Debbie said.
Kenny laughed and Ricky looked up from the open engine compartment and tucked his hair. “Baby, I’m trying to avoid that. That’s why I have you.”
Debbie shot him the finger and twisted the cap from her beer. She flipped it over and looked at what was underneath. “I hate these puzzles,” she said. She threw the cap into the grass and it settled against a Laura Scudder’s potato chip bag that was bright yellow and tangled in the weeds.
“It’s called a rebus,” Ricky said. Everybody looked at him.
“What is called a rebus?” I asked.
“The puzzle. It’s got a name. It’s like code. We used it in the war, out on field patrols.”
Debbie rolled her eyes and bit at the back of her thumb. “Stop with the war bullshit already,” she said. “Tell a different story.” She shielded her eyes with her hand and looked off to the west. “You want to go swim?” she asked me.
I looked at the lake in the distance and thought I could see a white line moving across it, the wake from a boat cutting across the surface. I imagined how cool the water was, how deep it might be. I was terrible at gauging distance, but the lake didn’t look that far away. It was a hard blue stain on the other side of thick trees, high grass, a steep walk down. It could take us ten minutes to get there. It could take us two hours. There would be a lot to step over and through in the process—a lot of things that would like to poke in and scratch.
“Are you sure you want to go?” I asked.
Debbie ran her tongue across her lips. “I’m going,” she said. “Right now.”
“Don’t be gone a long time,” Kenny said. “Ricky wants to do this just before sunset.”
I looked at the sky and the sun was still far from making the slide toward the horizon line. “We’ll be back,” I said.
We each grabbed an extra beer and started walking toward the oak trees that marked the slope down to the shoreline. I could hear our shoes trampling the grass and it was dry and brittle and sharp and pieces of it bit into the bare skin on my legs and I had to keep resisting the urge to reach down and scratch. We walked in silence; the only sound was the car radio spilling out the open doors behind us. The music was good and part of me wanted to stay and listen, sitting in the driver’s seat with my legs propped up on the open gap between the frame and the door, and just wait for the sun to start setting. I thought that maybe if I stayed by the car, I could keep bugging Kenny enough that he would make Ricky get down to it sooner rather than later and I could find out what he was up to and then we could make the drive back and I could get something to eat, since nobody had thought about the fact that we had all kinds of beer and no food at all.
“You know Ricky is crazy, right?” Debbie said. I had been thinking about a cheeseburger, the kind with shredded lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, and a vanilla milk shake and fries with lots of salt, crispy fries that are too hot to bite into but you do it anyways because you can’t wait or hold back.
“What?” I asked.
“He’s crazy. He shouldn’t even talk about Suzy Eberhardt.”
I took a long swallow from my open bottle and slowed down my pace so that I could step over some rocks that were piled in the grass. They had yellow flowers growing through the spaces between them, yellow flowers in the yellow grass, and the rocks themselves were a faded yellow, a flat sea, the yellow of sick skin.
“He seems okay,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything more to say. When I got right down to it, I really didn’t care if he was crazy or if he wasn’t—he wasn’t my friend, he was my brother’s—and maybe he knew something about what happened to Suzy Eberhardt, even though that didn’t bother me much either, since she was a girl I had heard of but hadn’t known and her disappearing didn’t affect me.
The breeze came up again and it was warm and uneven and very slight, but it was enough to dry the sweat.

Meet the Author

Jodi Angel’s first collection of short stories, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named as a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as an LA Times Book Review Discovery. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, One Story, Byliner and the Sycamore Review, among other publications and anthologies. Her stories have received several Pushcart Prize nominations and she was selected for Special Mention in 2007. Most recently her story “A Good Deuce” was noted as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Stories 2012. She grew up in a small town in Northern California—in a family of girls.

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You Only Get Letters from Jail 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Brungs to res 10*