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Novel of Relationships In Poetry


Angels by Denis Johnson (1949-2017)

Their lives collided one cross-country Greyhound ride.

The talk between Jamie Mays, estranged from her husband with their two children, and drifter Bill Houston quickly cushions the way for companionship. Neither had anything, their dreams long dissolved by the acid of life, their hopes ravaged by circumstance.

Author Denis Johnson tells the couple’s story with an objective clarity that seduces the reader into living it with them. Johnson, a poet, writes beautifully. He chooses words for their tone, their color, their meaning, and, at the same time, sucks the reader into the despondency of the lovers’ past, present and future.

Indeed, Jamie and Bill seem hopeless as their responses to ill fortune snowball into more bad times all around: Jack Daniels, heroin, psychotic attacks. The cycle can’t help but spiral downward into utter debacle. Nothing but a miracle would save them, and, they would surely have to ask, for what?

Their futures are finally wrested from their hands when Bill commits a felony and Jamie is committed to a mental institution. No more flaunting or fighting fate. It has been done.

Note Jamie’s anger after being raped by two men. She and her lover walk out of “Endless Love” – ironically, a maudlin Hollywood film about the love of an ingénue – because their conversation has become noisy:

“ ‘You mean those monsters pull their s--- on me and just keep on living?’ She was crying out in front of the Biograph. ‘That the way it works? That the way it works?’

“Bill Houston handed her his red bandana. ‘Was there something that works some other way?’ “

Though the rape is not the central theme of Angels, it gives the couple a hold, a bond, the glue to stay together emotionally.

“They started calling it The Rape, and it came to stand for everything: for coming together while falling apart; for loving each other and hating everybody else; for moving at a breakneck speed while getting nowhere; for freezing in the streets and melting in the rooms of love. The Rape was major and useless, like a knife stuck in the midst of things. They could hate it and arrange their picture of themselves around it.”

Kudos to Denis Johnson. His first novel reads like one long, narrative poem.

(This piece was first published on January 15, 1984 in the Long Beach Press-Telegram.)

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