In The Angle Quickest for Flight, a quintet of eccentric metaphysicians searches for a sacred book looted during the Spanish Inquisition and tithed to the Vatican. Steven Kotler's first novel, which received acclaim from masters such as John Barth, moves with dizzying power across continents and epochs, weaving a multilayered narrative around secret societies, mad magicians, and a runaway boy named Angel.
|Publisher:||Avalon Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Trade Paper Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
Read an Excerpt
HE CAME WEST, TRAVELING IN A LONG pocket of dawn that never strays far from a sallow gray. Behind him a set of mountains reaches high into a wide sky and on certain peaks are footprints and patches of grass pressed flat against the earth where he had made his camp. Behind these places are other camps and other footsteps and a long walk without a good reason and somewhere back there are his parents, alone now, in a house too big for them, wondering where their son has gone.
It is no longer winter. Soon his picture will begin appearing in leaflets and grocery stores among so many other lost or left or no longer wanting to be found. But it's not much use, he dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco and lost his virginity to a long-legged bull rider named Linda in the hayloft of a Texas panhandle barn and is about as gone as gone can get.
Now, it's morning in Santa Fe and he sits in plain sight on a shaky park bench under a sad willow. There's a wind in the trees and a dull roar to the north where a storm's been building. This is the main plaza, a plunk of grass surrounded by a square of streets. It's early and except for a stalled pickup in the northwest corner, the roads are empty of cars. In the distance, salsa plays. There's a rhythm there, but it's too soon and no one moves to it.
Across from him, under a long verandah, Indians are setting out wares. Fresh bread, pottery, jewelry, brushed wool blankets in neat rows on a hard ground. They're slow and old and sick of it all. Theyknow that the weather won't hold and the few tourists left in town are still asleep in their hotel rooms, but it's been a long time since they have had any choice in the matter. He watches them slump, that's the word for it, knowing that the silence and the gray and the approaching storm hold something for them that will never be his.
He cups a cigarette deep in his fingers, the smoke hanging in the heavy breeze, hanging close to his mouth a moment longer than it should. It isn't much of a trick, rather something that happened to him. Just the way the world works now.
An old woman watches him from the opposite corner of the plaza. Not one of the Indians, though at a glance there's almost no telling. Lean and taut. Eyes the color of ash. She wears old jeans and cowboy boots scuffed at odd angles as if they had been drawn and quartered and restitched out of sentiment. He understands this, the need for things attached.
He's been here a week and seen her for most of it: a far shadow that is always there. The way she moves like an old history teacher makes him think there is no way she should be able to keep up.
She watches him with nonchalance, as if this is another thing in a long list of things she does, as if he were to stand and turn and walk out of her life forever it would be no different than if she never bothered to read today's paper.
He isn't going to do anything about her, or not yet. There's a part of him that will always like such games.
The rain starts as sound. At first he thinks it's coming from a radio, a canteen band playing a chutney of Latin rhythm. It comes slowly and there's even a pause between drops, but he hears the hiss of grass: cold rain and black skies, the way it happens in the desert. Maybe it will start slowly and he'll have time to make it back to his camp or wait it out in the library; he doesn't really know what to do with this day. He doesn't have time. The rain falls hard and fast. And he understands this too, the need to seek level ground.
Only the Indians don't move. This is just another storm they'll have to wait out.
He walks across the street and up the stairs of a bar. He doesn't have a gait as much as a motion, not slick or slow or shambling or shuttling or anything quite. He walks with his square shoulders square and his chin up and eyes the color of lawn grass always looking into some medium distance, just beyond the edge of sight. The street is already wet, his boots track water into the bar. It's a little early for a drink and he doesn't have ID and, even if he did, he's still only seventeen. But in this rain it doesn't matter, before anyone notices he's sitting on a stool, beside three or four others, sipping a cup of hot coffee.
The bar is old, held together by nostalgia, sawdust, brass spittoons. There are tall barrels stacked in corners and a few rodeo trophies on the wall. Coffee comes in mismatched mugs and some mugs have names written in black ink across their bottoms. The names correspond to another set of names written on masking tape and stuck to the wall behind the bar. Above the tape small wooden dowels stick out. Some have mugs hanging on them, others are just names staring into empty space. It looks like a seating chart for the Alamo.
He's watching the bar's door when Father Yohji Amo SJ arrives. There is a clunking on the stairs or a rush of wind or something else that gathers the boy's attention. Today Amo doesn't look like a father, there's no clerical collar and nothing to distinguish him. Instead, he looks like a man cut down from a mast on some sailing ship that had blown through too many hurricanes. His hair is stark black and his eyes oriental. There's an angle to his body and he walks with a forward thrust as if something large and invisible is blocking his every move and he has to push past it continuously.
Amo walks into the room and crosses towards the bar and once there holds a hand up, two fingers extending toward victory, long, clean, lunulas the color of opal.
"Two snorts of whiskey," glancing around the room while the bartender pours, "and a coffee, please."
He pays and lifts the drinks and moves to the stool beside the boy. His hair is wet and water is slowly leaking onto his face.
"You got a napkin or something?"
The bartender hands him a dry rag. Amo tousles his hair, his brow, his hand moving in concentric circles like a man polishing silver. He wears wool trousers and a wool fisherman's sweater, both black and beaded with water. He picks water from worn elbows and clumps his boots together with an odd smile.
"Thanks," he says, tossing the towel onto the bar.
He looks down at the whiskey glasses as if surprised to see them.
"Here," sliding one of the shots towards the boy, "takes the chill away."
The boy looks around, uncertain, finding no one beside him turns back to the stranger.
"You're buying me a drink?"
"Hate drinking alone."
"Thank you." A nod of the head, more dash than dot. An edge of hair falls forward, normally lighter in color, but now damp with rain. He lifts a hand to brush it from his forehead or has he always been lifting a hand, something about him making it impossible to tell, and all the while his eyes never stray from the man.
"Nice to meet you."
"Veteran of special forces campaign in occupied Germany, of the war in Chubut, of Jakarta, the New York Public, Congress, and the Kirghiz Steppe."
The same odd smile. His teeth are thin, or appear thin, as if ground and shaped from so much odd smiling.
"That's quite a list."
"Yes, it is."
"New York Public?"
"Library. That and Congress, both of them a bitch. Tougher than war, not as many mosquitoes though."
"You should print calling cards."
"Did. Ran out."
A blur as Amo lifts his arm towards his mouth. He drinks by throwing the whiskey into his throat.
"Got yourself a name?" asks Amo.
The boy says nothing for a while, he wanders his eyes across the coffee cups, weighs the options, then shakes his head slowly and keeps shaking it slowly until he finally hears himself say, "nah."
This isn't a great decision, but it is the first time since he's left that he has had to think it through. There is a tingling in his shoulders, a weightlessness. This, he supposes, is the sensation of being cut free, just for a second, from one of the things meant to keep.
Amo taps the bar, long fingers again, a soft sound. "Well, good for you. No sense being the same old person, not in times like these."
The boy measures his sip of whiskey, feeling the liquid slot into his mouth, his throat, the thing that whiskey always does to him, the moment of being alone in a hot desert. He's never drunk alcohol this early in the day before.
The bartender refills the coffee and looks at the empty glasses. Amo winks and a small scar appears on his left eyelid. It looks like three lines from a Paul Klee drawing. The bartender sets two more shots in front of them. The boy ignores his, reaching for the mug. The coffee tastes black to him and he considers this for a moment, how easily colors become tastes.
"Angel," and Amo pronounces it with a Spanish twist so the e is more a whisper than a vowel.
"Mind if I call you Angel? I used to know an Angel, he's not around anymore." Amo watches the rain for a moment. "Probably could use another one right now."
"Angel," Amo says again.
This is how people are with him, how they have always been. Somehow he will always fill their holes. It is something he had grown used to long before he ever could make the decision.
"Nothing personal, but I think you got the wrong guy."
Amo nods at that. "Opinions vary."
Outside the rain slows. Light, flowing in through a row of large windows, dampens and brightens. A shadow sweeps the room, stopping on an old world map tacked beyond the bar. The corners are bent inward to the place where the tacks pierce oceans and the shadow lays a sigh across Antarctica. The far-flung edge of the earth.
"My father died there," says Amo, pointing to the shadow's edge. He stares at the map, his eyes squint and crunch, and Angel watches the lines fan out across the sides of his face.
"South Georgia Island," pointing to a speck at map's bottom, "but he wasn't all there."
Angel understands, without having to be told, that there and there are not just two different places, but on different maps altogether.
"He was a Pi mystic," as if it were as natural as being a baker.
"Uh-huh," say's Angel, a little light in his eyes. "I think I'm going to need a cigarette."
Amo tosses a pack onto the bar, lights a match. The cigarettes are foreign, smell faintly of turpentine, hard on the lungs.
"He was born in Japan, lived hand-to-mouth, traveled the countryside, found the occasional pupil. He taught bellyfuls of obfuscating mathematics. Awful stuff. His private cult of Pi."
Amo smokes like he drinks, like a man who has spent his life starving. The first cigarette disappears and a second comes up to replace it. He shakes away the smoke and his hair drops into his face. He shakes away the hair and keeps talking.
"Not much left of the old cult now. Had something to do with the radius of the Buddha's fingers and a numerical vision kept taut and locked by deep, deep concentration."
"The war came, he volunteered for the Kamikaze ranks. Had to be the oldest fuck they ever put in an airplane. Got a headband and a destiny. But it didn't work out like they planned."
Amo smiles and Angel waits.
"He broke course early and somehow," Amo raises his hands, the ancient symbol for god-knows-what, "crash landed on South Georgia Island." His finger juts out, pointing at a dot in the lower edge of the South Atlantic Ocean. "Never been anything to see there. Seals. Ice. A few transplanted Welshmen who think Tierra del Fuego too populous. It's less than seventy miles off the crush of Antarctica. When winter comes the ice shelf jostles the island. In the glare of summer's thaw there are floods."
Amo taps his cigarette and some of the ash spills over onto the bar.
"He's a mess. Nearly broken in half. Found by a sealer who tosses him in his sled and drags him back to his tin igloo for his wife to nurse. Wife's name is Elena. Feisty, solid woman. Won't let the old man die. He's a handsome bastard and she falls in love. One day husband comes home to find them in bed together. By now she's two-months pregnant, tells her husband this like it's going to make a difference. Takes the guy thirty seconds to put a harpoon through my father's skull. Elena escapes only by chance. She runs to Cumberland Bay and hops a whaler to the Falklands and another to Argentina. I'm born on a coastal trawler given to touring the Straits of Magellan in search of sunken treasure galleys."
There's more to the story, but it will be months before Angel hears the ending. How Elena wades ashore in Tierra del Fuego wearing white sailor's pants rolled above slender knees. It is little more than twenty-five feet to shore but when she reaches the sand her toes are blue with cold and she hugs the child close for warmth. She walks up the beach and up a flight of steps cut into the cliff. A Jesuit mission perches atop the bluff. A small metal gate rims the front of the property and two gargoyles look down at her from fence posts. One has a crack running up its wing, despite the good currents and the open sky this is a place it will never fly away from. There's rust on the gate hinge and a sweet squeaking sound when it opens. Condors nest nearby. They don't move at the noise. They have no natural born predators and are not hunted. This is just another sound they have learned not to fear. She leaves Amo on the church stoop. He wears swaddling rags and a blue cap. Deep Patagonia. He has birds and priests and cold for company.
Though he doesn't think this way, for Amo, Santa Fe was a long time coming. But which way does he think? Amo wonders this sometimes, sitting with strangers in strange bars and drinking too much or too soon or both, and all the while the rain falling down on his life. That is what he thinks of when he recalls the Jesuits, the incessant sound of water falling through sky. In Patagonia, he was always certain about the ranking of the elements. He wonders after this too, the things that are now certain. There has always been the fear that sooner or later his life would evade him, that one day he would find himself on a fool's errand, doing something, possibly idiotic, possibly not much different from this errand, and after that nothing would ever quite fit.
"You all right over there?" asks Angel. Sometime in the telling Amo had turned his head away, offering only a scruff of neck, an ear, a wedge of brow that has become increasingly furrowed.
Amo looks hard at Angel and asks a gruff question from the middle of nowhere. "You like books, kid?"
"You asking me if I can read?"
"It'd be a start."
"Yeah, I can read."
"What about old books?" Amo starts to qualify this, then stops.
Angel smiles at him. "Just what does any of this have anything to do with me?"
"Maybe it doesn't." Amo coughs and rolls the empty tumbler between his palms. "More whiskey?"
"Little early for me."
"Never too early for more whiskey."
Another pair of shots appear. Amo slams his down with a flourish, Angel lets his lie on the counter. Neither say anything. Amo pulls a long, twisted cigar from his breast pocket. It could be a churro or a dried snake. He reaches to his waist and undoes his belt buckle. There's a long blade tucked inside. The belt's leather is lined with steel to form a sheath and when Amo slides the blade out, it rides across the metal like a sneeze. The buckle collapses from a hollow square of silver bars into a thin handle that looks like a fancy H steamrolled into an I. He snips the cigar's end with a fast, clean motion. When he's finished the knife goes back to being a buckle and his pants go back to being tight along the waist and the cigar pours smoke into the room.
A group of tourists have been watching from the corner, the knife makes them huddle and whisper. It's been a long vacation and despite the new boots and the miles and the shitty beds in podunk motels this is as close to the American West as they've come.
"Truth is, kid, I could give a shit. This wasn't even my idea." Then he stands and walks towards the bathroom. Angel sips his coffee. Time passes. The tourists watch Amo walk back to the bar, he puts a roll in his stride for their benefit and later they'll believe him to be a bronco buster, a good one, who has taken some nasty falls and walks funny as proof.
"You're being watched."
Angel whirls the stirrer in his coffee and lets go, it makes large circles around the cup's edge before dragging to a stop.
"Probably not worth the effort," looking up from his cup, "I'll send up a flare if I do something interesting."
"You've seen the old woman?" asks Amo.
"I have at that."
"She's a friend of mine."
Angel says nothing, just offers the slight, bemused curve of his mouth.
"She doesn't mean any harm."
Angel takes another cigarette from the pack on the bar. Amo lights a match and Angel leans towards it. Smoke like frost seeping between his fingers.
"Where I come from meaning and harm have very little relation, they both just seem to happen."
Amo picks up his cigar and chews and suddenly knows what it is she sees in Angel. The smoke pulls at the corners of his eyes. All night he's been awake trying to solve an equation, one belonging to the great Russian mathematician Georg Cantor who, in the end, went a little crazy and Amo's wondering if he will too.
"She asked me to come in here and find you."
"You're trying to get me drunk so she can have her way with me?"
"Not like that at all. "He splays his fingers and lifts his hand slightly from its perch on the bar. A small glimmer of gesture that Angel finds strangely beautiful.
"She just wants to speak with you."
"Why didn't she come herself?"
"She's a strange woman."
"She's your friend."
"Yeah, but I'm a strange man."
"What does she want to talk about?"
"Look," says Amo, standing and striding towards the door, "there ain't a thing in the world that makes sense if you look at it the wrong way." And then, already starting down the stairs, he stops and turns his head back towards the room. "See ya round kid."
At the bottom of the steps he thinks I'm a lousy priest, and this cracks him up.
CLOUDY NIGHT ON THE NORTH EDGE of town. The rain has moved on. Amo has taken a fine room at a nice hotel. Quiet and respectable. A winding row of adobe cottages. The cottages are designed for isolationan artist's retreat for the idle rich. Certainly, you could paint here but at prices few artists would pay.
The thin desert darkness stretches all around. There is the feeling that you could poke right through it, tear just a corner away and back would rush the hot, hard day. But for now Amo sits looking at a sliver of moon. His head rests on the seatback and his feet are propped up on another chair. Behind him there is a six-foot stone fence that separates cottage from world and world from cottage. He drinks his wine slowly now that this morning's show is over, humming "When the Saints Go Marching In," and doesn't turn around when Angel slips over the wall and pads up in bare feet.
"Howdy sailor. You follow me home?" still not turning around to look at him.
Angel grabs a chair and squats on it, feet splayed at a hard angle, the rest of him riding just above his heels. They pass a few moments watching the shiver of moon's glow.
After a while Amo says, "You should put shoes on, there are scorpions."
"Tell me about her," says Angel.
"Her name is Pena."
"I don't know what it means," shaking his head, "but you can be sure it means something." Amo uncorks the bottle and pours himself another glass. "Would you like some wine?"
"No, thank you."
Something creaks along the wall behind them, but neither turn. Amo brushes at a crease in his pants. "Her story's been lost and found for years."
Angel can see that he means it like a question, but he doesn't answer or have an answer and they sit in silence.
"There have been rumors," Amo says finally.
"Extravagant, grand schemes."
Angel wonders what it would be like to have people make up great lies about him, what kind of life would he have to live to get to that point.
"Some say she's here only to bear witness. There was a story that she was Catherine the Great's first female lover, an impossibility, of course, but the rumor of that romance ran fever up and down the Baltic corridor. I've heard she's the last descendant of Ghengis Khan. You know Khan's treasure has never been found, still hidden somewhere in Mongolia."
He stops to light up a cigarette, to plume smoke into the dark. "Maybe in the Altai Mountains," smiling now, like that was an adventure he'd really like to be a part of. "And that the location of this secret treasure is inked on the inside of her womb."
"Imagine that," says Angel and he does.
The orange glow of Amo's cigarette rises in inhalation. Recently Angel had learned of organisms that live in the boiling pools of hot springs, in a world made from steam and heat.
"Do you know about the Di?" asks Amo.
"Di or Pi? Here we go again."
"The Di people," the words smacking with enunication, "were natives of the Min Shan in China. Pena has a lot of their blood in her. A pretty insular tribe, fairly peaceful, fabled for their calligraphy. Spring of 420 ADsomeonesomethinghappened. There's no way to tell, but when it was done the Di had simply quit. In less than a week they stripped their homes and packed up their lives and left. They began raiding other villages. Kidnapping. Making strangers teach them strange things. Want to know what they were stealing?"
"You want to tell me?"
"Languages. They stopped speaking their own. They took the best of what was around and went on. They erased their own history, they forgotintentionally." He takes his feet off the chair and places them on the hard stone. "This is a people who walked out on history, who said, 'No, this is no longer mine.'"
Amo stands up and walks thirty-five steps across the garden and reaches a far wall and turns and walks thirty-five steps back. He stops right in front of Angel and looks him right in the eye and says, "Kabbalah."
Angel looks right back. "KabbalahJewish mysticism. Yeah, I know what that is."
"Holy books aren't just about what they can teach, they're about lines of power. May I tell you a story?"
What else, Angel thinks, have you been doing?
"The largest accumulation of Jewish mystics to put pen to paper was in Spain just before Ferdinand and Isabella. Middle of the twelfth century. Until then the Kabbalah was mostly an oral tradition, but the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was the first time stuff got written down. Imagine that, a religion nearly 4000 years old and they don't write down their most sacred traditions for 3600 of those years."
"So why then?"
"The Moors were running the show, Jews felt safe with them. It didn't matter. Maybe there was a sign from God, maybe just a literary fever, who knows. When the Inquisition came Isabella paid her tithe to the Church with Jewish art and Jewish books. The Inquisitioners stole everything. They did it right out in the open for anybody to see. Most of those books are still under lock and key inside the Vatican's secret archives. They don't belong to the Vatican and most of them aren't much use to it, but it's a question of sovereignty."
"Not every last priest is involved, if that's what you're asking, but a group within a group within a group. What I want to tell you is sometimes it doesn't matter what's true and what's not. Those are just end points. The black and white. Pena is all gray."
Angel thinks about it a while. "What do you believe?"
"Me," says Amo, "I believe everything."