I’ve gotten weary over the years, especially of hype and marketing. It’s engendered in me no small amount of Bestseller Backlash*5. This extends to lesser-known authors in a ‘coolness mutation’ of the disease (which explains why I’m so McSweeney’s/New Directions/SoHo Press deficient). This mutation kept me from reading a book called The Children’s Hospital, written by Chris Adrian. It sounded good, I wanted to read it, and then at least four co-workers had to tell me just how good it was. This sort of thing has kept me from Murakami, Marias, Marquez*6 and other ‘M’ name authors.
Time went by, The Children’s Hospital stared at me accusingly each time I unpacked it from a Perseus Distribution box, and I got on with life. Then, as if by magic (or the weekly galley box sent to each Schwartz store from the home office), I saw a book by Chris Adrian with my name on it.
Did I dare? Well, yeah, or I wouldn’t be writing about it. I tore through Adrian’s collection of stories, A Better Angel, and soon after felt like the last guy to insist that the Earth was flat*7. From the first story on it’s evident that Adrian has an envious amount of creativity and an admirable grasp of his characters’ motivations and viewpoints.
Make no mistake; these aren’t quirky slices of life or faith-affirming meditations on mankind’s foibles. What’s in this book, in every story without exception, is sadness, nearly incommunicable rage, twisted pathos and the ever-present specter of death. Having never read Adrian before, I was surprised to say the least. There are elements of the fantastic and the supernatural in many cases, but they serve as a means to explore a reality that’s been turned upside down.
The central question in so many of the stories in A Better Angel is “How does a person deal with death?” The death of loved ones, the death of innocence, the death of spirit in the face of atrocity. The answers proffered won’t help you sleep better at night, but they will make you think hard about your own response to tragedy. This book is not a positive coping mechanism; quite the opposite, it is a rage-filled howl against the inadequacy of emotion and the way in which terrible events weigh down everyday lives.
A Better Angel is definitely not for the faint of heart; it is for the questioners and the seekers who are open to plumbing the depths of anguish and living in the chilly recesses of tortured minds for the space of a story now and then.
*I’m not fishing for compliments here. It’s a simple statement of fact. Let it be.
*2 No “meth-mouth” for me, thanks. Drugs are bad. You heard it here first.
*3 Not many classics, too much genre trash, and a fair amount worth recommending here and on The Inside Flap.
*4 Catch the next mixer at Recreational Sherpa’s; Milwaukee’s newest indoor rock climbing center and pub house! Located in the basement of the third crack house on Cambridge, just off the corner of Brady and Farwell. $5 cover, Tuesday night rails are only $2 until 10pm. Can’t relate to having a street with at least three crack houses in your city or town? Good for you.
*5 A particularly virulent book-borne form of elitism that causes sufferers to recoil from any book that comes highly recommended by any print or online publication (except The Inside Flap), or sells a lot of copies.
*6 “It’s Garcia Marquez, jerk!” I’m aware, but go into any bookstore and you’ll find him shelved in both ways. I don’t make the rules, I just bend them to make weak alphabet jokes.
*7 I know; I seem to start a fair amount of my book recommendations by saying that I held off on reading a book and found I was wrong to do so. What can I say? I spend a lot of time being stubborn and wrong. I could have just come out and said as much, but who am I; Georgia’s senior Senator, Saxby Chambliss*8?
“I don’t know what I’m doing here either. While I’ve got your attention; don’t vote for that Barack Hussein Obama feller. He’s a ‘risky’ choice. I hope you take my Southern Strategy meaning when I say ‘risky’.”
*8 I actually know next to nothing about Saxby Chambliss or his reading habits, save for that he’s a Republican and therefore alternates The Bible and Ann Coulter and is most likely evil. Plus, he’s got an ‘old money’, funny-sounding name worthy of mockery.