Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Review: Dirty Little Angels by Chris Tusa

Dirty Little Angels, by Chris Tusa, The University of West Alabama's Livingston Press 2009,147 pp., $15.95

Tusa is a gifted poet who shows us why southern writers have a leg up on the competition when it comes to telling stories in this his debut novel. New Orlean's native son strikes a balance somewhere between the humid characterization of Harry Crews, the almost criminal prose of Walter Mosley, and Jim Thompson's downright belligerent noir. It's a real pleasure to watch Tusa's people rant and rave about wrongdoing, the limits of familial love, and the motivations of God Himself in the Big Easy.

Hailey Trosclair leads us through the gritty streets of the New Orlean's French Quarter. She and her new friends hang out at hardluck places like the The Dead Goat and the abandoned bank on Elysian Fields. Hailey is growing up fast and just beginning to see the violent side of the adult world as a participant rather than as a child. Moses, a friend of Hailey's brother Cyrus, is a hustler who proselytizes sinners with a pair of brass knuckles, but he goes too far and one young man, Cory Rabalais, dies from the beating that Hailey's brother Cyrus helps visit upon the young man for attacking a girl. The reader speculates with delicious anxiety . . . will they all be blamed for the young man's death? The characters of Tusa know they are imploring to an impassive god who ignores prayers when they talk about creating a drive-through Church. Not unlike Flannery O'Connor's "Church Without Christ" one wonders about the real identity of the indifferent wrathful God at issue here.There's no doubt a careful reader, like a girl Hailey meets in the hospital after a suicide attempt, might find a dirty angel or two in these pages.

What makes Tusa's writing enjoyable is his attention to language. No surpise since he is also an extraordinary poet who sings us a dark hymn in Dirty Little Angels of grief and retribution. For instance, the novel opens with a strange yet arresting metaphor, The baby was a white fist of flesh. There are other examples of his talent for turning a strange and compelling phrase like crows opened like black flowers in the trees; that creepy bastard could spook the chords out of a guitar; the sky was the color of raw meat. Call his work modern southern gothic with a grotesque host of characters who cheat on each other, steal cemetery angels, name their pitbull Hitler, and have tattoos of Christ crucified across their chests. Read this book for the florid descriptions and near divination that inspired this apocalyptic tale. Tusa is a writer's writer who causes us to say out loud, "I wish I could write like that."

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