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Denis Johnson: Angels

Johnson’s first novel, after publishing three well-received poetry collections, is a grim slice of life in the USA, which borders on the obscene and runs right into the lost civilisation that the USA is for many. The story starts at the Oakland Greyhound Bus Terminal. If you have ever been there, you will know that it is not a place where you want to spend much of your life, yet this is as good as it gets in this novel. Jamie Mays is traveling on the Greyhound with her two daughters, Miranda Sue and Baby Ellen. She was running away from her husband and their life in the trailer. He was abusive to her, twice having nearly strangled her, felt that he was doing his best to provide for her at his own expense, slept most of the time and, finally had been unfaithful. Behind her, on the bus, is Bill Houston, a man who has a seahorse tattoo, wrap-around sunglasses and a kindly grin. They soon become friends. She accompanies him to Pittsburgh. At Chicago she lost him and, when she was looking for him, she was helped by a man called Ned Higher-and-Higher, who rapes her. She gets back together with Bill Houston and they head off to Arizona.

In Arizona, we meet Bill’s mother reading the Bible, in particular a page headed All idolatrous must be slain. She lives in a neighbourhood, which is primarily Mexican, living off Social Security and selling pastries. Her husband (though they never actually married) is in maximum security prison, unlikely ever to get out. As she is not married to him, she is not even allowed to visit him. Two of her three sons have already been in prison. Of Bill’s two brothers, one repossesses cars and the other is a heroin addict. Things go from bad to worse. Jamie gets into drugs and drink, while Bill and his brothers do a bank robbery that goes terribly wrong, with Bill killing a guard. Jamie goes a mental institution and Bill to the gas chamber. Jamie gets out. Bill doesn’t. It’s a terribly grim and depressing novel but with little hope of redemption for any of the characters but, despite the horror they live through and the appalling bad judgements they make, Johnson does show sympathy to Jamie and Bill, though not a great deal for the reader.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Knopf