Dirty Little Angels
by Chris Tusa
University of West Alabama, 160 pp., $15.95
Midway through Chris Tusa’s debut novel, the meaning of his title becomes clear. A schizophrenic inmate in a psychiatric ward tells our narrator that the only way we can enter heaven is by having our souls eaten by angels, who are left with all our greasy, soot-colored impurities spread across their mouths. In this novel’s world, 0ur souls are indeed that dirty. This image accrues throughout the rest of the novel, and the gathering filth of deceit, violence, pettiness, and pervading moral bankruptcy sticks to the central characters like tangible sin. This image comes to haunt Hailey, our sixteen-year-old narrator, who is already susceptible to the idea that roaches are crawling through the crevasses of her brain.
Dirty Little Angels is set in the slums of New Orleans, among clusters of crack houses and abandoned buildings. Primarily, it is the story of Hailey Trosclair. When her family suffers a string of financial hardships and a miscarriage, she finds herself looking to God to save her family. When her prayers go unanswered, she puts her faith in a wiry black man with a potbelly, Moses Watkins, a failed preacher and ex-con. Fascinated by Moses’ view of violence and religion, Hailey and her brother, Cyrus, begin spending time down at an abandoned bank, which Moses plans to convert into a drive-through church. Gradually, however, Moses’ twisted religious beliefs become increasingly more violent, and Hailey and Cyrus soon find themselves trapped in a world of danger and fear from which there may be no escape.
In a blurb on the back of this book, Burl Barer claims, “Dirty Little Angels is the To Kill a Mockingbird of 2009.” On the surface, this lofty comparison holds water: both novels feature coming-of-age plots; young, female narrators; Southern gothic settings; and race relations. However, Barer’s assertion can only be true if in 2009, Atticus Finch is philandering a married waitress from Nacho Mama’s whose cancer-riddled husband is dying in Charity Hospital; Jem is a brute who, while wearing brass knuckles, socks people in their bellies and steals religious objects; and Tom Robinson is, in fact, not only guilty of rape but also several other atrocities. And what of young Hailey, the would-be Scout? In Tusa’s hands she is a schizophrenic who fucks her best friend’s boyfriend, a rich white kid who wants to be Mexican because, “There’s nothing worse than being white.” So, yes, perhaps Barer is correct. However, I’d suggest a more appropriate comparison: Dirty Little Angels is an updated, southern-fried The Outsiders!
But Barer has a second point—one that’s less controversial, if more obvious: Tusa’s is a brave new voice. He avoids the heavy-hand, offering no clear moral certainty, letting all of his characters exist as all people truly are: flawed. This novel has more courage and steely-eyed truth than I’ve found in much recent Southern gothic. This sub-genre is a tricky one, because the majority of its practitioners are so well-versed in its traditions that they often instinctually fall back on the tried and true, failing to look around them today. That is, I’d suggest that they know the South more through its literature than through its current, lived lives. I can’t think of another way to explain all of the cliches. Tusa lays witness to the contemporary grotesque in all its full, glorious bloom. For instance, he does not have his depraved characters removed from more civilized society, a move found in so much O’Connor, Dickey, and McCarthy. Rather, he situates his novel in the here and now: 2008, smack dab in the heart of ruined New Orleans. His characters have the tradition’s familiar religious zeal that approaches madness the way I might a long lost puppy found in a scrap yard. And when he employs the grotesque’s ubiquitous taste for violence, it is far from the traditional mindless variety: his characters are literally beating God into your bloody face. If his characters are illiterate, it is not because they are simply ignorant; to the contrary, they are too integrated into the larger commercial America, consuming La-Z-boys, Chic-fil-A, Miller Lite, etc. Material influences press upon them at every turn and corner, such that even though his characters are broke, unemployed, reduced to stealing and selling their plasma, they still manage to budget enough money for all the crap they see on TV: Blackberries, collagen lip injections, high-speed internet, melanin implants, and so on. In fact, one character takes out a payday loan for his high school daughter’s boob job, and another man is being evicted from his home by his own brother because he refuses to go to work at “a low-rent job like Wal-Mart.”
More impressive, however, than Tusa’s devotion to the much-neglected but vibrant Southern grotesque, is his prose, which is sharp, crystal-clear, and poetic, bringing a dignity to these troubled characters’ lives. Tusa is, in fact, a poet. His first book, Haunted Bones, is all first-rate poetry, even if he’s currently working in prose. So it’s no doubt true when he claimed, in a recent interview with Angie Ledbetter on Roses & Thorns, that “For me, separating the two (fiction and poetry) has always been difficult.” There is no doubt about it. His novel is built, image upon image, like a 55,000 word poetic palimpsest. Listen to the first three sentences of the novel: “The baby was a white fist of flesh. Mama had placed the ultrasound photo atop her dresser in a sterling silver frame. That night, when the pain bent her over in the kitchen, I imagined that same white fist punching her insides black-and-blue.” Or when he describes Moses’ church thus: “The T was missing from Trust, so the sign said ‘Gentilly Commerce Bank and Rust,’ and the C hung caddywamp like a broken halo.”
Dear Reader, Tusa’s prose will put you in Moses’ un-airconditioned church. You will smell the opened tin of sardines set on the floor beside the rusted lawn chairs that serve as pews; feel the pressure and angst of teenagers who hurl their bodies into emotionless sex as easily as they throw, from the windows of speeding junk cars, their empty Zima bottles into ditches, overgrown with weeds; see the burned boy whose face looks like “brown paper bag with two holes ripped out for eyes.” The grease in the words becomes palpable, and after reading this wonderfully nasty little novel, you’ll need a shower to get the smell of tobacco smoke out of your hair. And even then it will haunt you, and you will hear the car tires crunching over oyster shell driveways, hear the rain dripping from busted gutters onto a pile of leaves, and perhaps even hear—as young Hailey does—the scratching of cockroaches scurrying within your skull. And that haunted house is worth the price of admission.