The words “have” and “get” pulse insistently through Jodi Angel’s new short story collection. What you have to do, what you get to do, what you get away with; getting in trouble, getting used to it. Sometimes Angel even doubles up on these words: “My stomach clenched a little and I got ready to get in trouble.” That tensed, hurting readiness is one of the collection’s central moods. The other is a post-traumatic numbness which can sometimes become sentimentalized and is sometimes sociopathic.
All of Angel’s protagonists are teenage boys, living in a no-lifeguard-on-duty 1970s or ’80s hinterland of broken or unreliable families and bad-company friends. Before each story opens, something bad has already happened to these kids—often the death of one or both parents. The boys’ narrative voices always sound a little shocked, as if they’re still sorting through how to live in this new world into which they’ve been thrust.
The first story, “A Good Deuce,” is probably the best. Roy, who has just cleaned up after his mother’s overdose, goes out for beers with his scuzzy best friend Phillip to pick up some girls. The friend is gross, the girls are willing, the kid is exhausted and unsure. His internal monologue is painfully aware of the unfairness of his situation—but also accepting of it, without more than a hint of self-pity. Phillip tells the girls a story about how Roy’s grandparents were Nazis, and then a worse story about Roy’s involvement in the death of a litter of cats, and the asymmetry between the two of them is brutal: Phillip gets to tell these stories, and Roy has to sit there and listen to and star in them. “A Good Deuce” ends with Roy alone with one of the girls, feeling that he’s been granted a reprieve, but not for long: “I knew that soon Phillip would be at the car, and he would want inside, and I would have to come to the surface again. I didn’t know for just how long I could stay.”
This story has some of the characteristic tics and flaws of Jodi Angel’s writing. There’s a (sometimes) strenuous or mannered Americana: The kids watch Robert Redford movies and drink Budweiser. In a different story, a hungry boy imagines eating a cheeseburger with Thousand Island dressing and French fries and a vanilla milkshake, and it’s hard not to think: Of course he does. There’s a special pleading with the reader, a little too much push for our sympathy, for these bruised-up boys. In “A Good Deuce,” it’s effective, but in other stories you do feel your heartstrings getting yanked around a bit. And “A Good Deuce” ends on a depressing note of thwarted longing for escape, which is more or less the note on which all the stories end.
Elements of Angel’s writing are reminiscent of Dorothy Allison (who contributed a blurb), such as the sense of how hard things can get for children and how early they need to focus on money, work, and inequality. Other elements are reminiscent of the movies of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers: Fans of Rosetta (1999) or The Kid with a Bike (2011) will feel at home in these neighborhoods. To my mind, Allison and the Dardennes handle this material with more depth and variation, though—in part because they’re willing to be more direct in their approach to concepts such as mercy and guilt. But there’s a power in the consistency with which Angel’s narrators long for mercy without expecting it; they’re unable to name it, unable to figure out what they yearn for, and so they’re unable to imagine anything changing. The strongest stories are the ones in which the narrators feel guilt and shame rather than mere self-interest or numbness. These emotions aren’t recognized by the people around them, who don’t expect teenaged boys to have the awareness and empathy such self-lacerating emotions require.
The stories are roughly divided into ones in which the narrators are attempting to shoulder responsibilities they themselves recognize as impossible (e.g., the young gambler in “Game-Bred” who makes a farcical attempt at crime when he gets in way over his head with a bookie, or the teen father pretending that he’s married to his baby’s mother in “The Last Mile”), and stories in which the narrator simply rejects the possibility of taking responsibility for others (e.g., the pubescent nihilists who find a corpse in “The Diving Reflex” and suspect an older boy of murder).
One reason the collection works is that all of us eventually feel that our responsibilities are too much to bear. We simultaneously complain about their unfairness and blame ourselves for failing to meet them. Some of these characters’ debts were earned and others just inherited, but all of them will have to be paid off.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.