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To call the pieces collected in Jodi Angel’s You only Get Letters from Jail (Tin House Books) coming-of-age stories misses the mark by a mile. The young men she writes about–orphans, children of addicts or parents otherwise too numbed by disappointment to offer their sons much in the way of shelter–have already grown up too fast. Rather, these stories describe the moments of adrenaline and gut instinct that can mark an imperiled adolescent’s first break for something better or set a course for a lifetime on the skids.
“I didn’t want to hurt anybody,” remembers Nolan, the teenage gambling addict who narrates “Game-Bred,” “but there was a fine line between threat and circumstances, and put under pressure, even a lump of coal can turn to diamond, hard and clear.” Nolan is in debt to a murderous bookie and spends the evening before the cash is due staking out an ATM with a knife from his mother’s kitchen. His upbringing has been far from ideal–he spent Tuesdays as a child fending off pit bull attacks at the babysitter’s. Still, nothing prepares us for the extent of the damage done, until salvation arrives in the form of an old junior high school flame. Ivy, a self-identified nymphomaniac and a compulsive liar, is at least as bad off as Nolan, but in Angel’s treacherously paradoxical world, her plan to pay off his debt with sex represents a shot at both survival and love. It is not until Nolan rifles through Ivy’s purse for a few twenties–presumably to place his next bet–that we realize that his life has been one long, high-stakes contest that he only knows how to play to the death.
It is to Angel’s credit that the reader is only ever a little more than half sure of which way things will go, that no turn ever feels like the inevitable consequence of not enough money or too little love. In “Catch the Grey Dog,” a busted transmission in the middle of farm country puts sixteen-year-old Sonny and his love-starved mother at the mercy of Casper, a hard-drinking Vietnam vet with a penchant for controlling the women in his life. Casper’s wife has fled, leaving behind Ruby, her twelve-year-old daughter, with a lock on her bedroom door and instructions to hop a Greyhound bus when things get bad. Still, Sonny’s mom cannot see the harm in staying on for a while to see how things go. It is the screaming of a farm rabbit, strung up for slaughter after devouring her young, that finally ignites Sonny’s reckoning with the ways appetite can pervert a mother’s better instincts. As benighted as the image is, it emboldens Sonny to accept responsibility for his future, and a glimpse of asphalt through the tall grass offers a reasonable assurance that the road ahead, though long, will lead him to safer ground.
Ruby, tethered in childhood even as her self-conscious sexuality lights up the story like an emergency flare, longs to be older. “There’s nothing great about being thirteen,” Sonny tells her. And he has a point. To be a sixteen-year-old boy is to know, but briefly, both a radical freedom and the tenuous vulnerability that comes with it. And Angel–whose author bio wryly notes that she grew up in a family of girls–has cultivated a voice that captures the hushed, tinny, late-night ache of the way young men talk when they open up. That voice–and it does not vary much from one first-person narrator to the next–seems to emanate both from the individual characters and from a zone of shared experience in a way that recalls Raymond Carver.
“The Diving Reflex,” in which teens Reece and Hurley fail to report a dead girl they find floating in a secluded swimming hole, seems to borrow its central premise from Carver’s “So Much Water, So Close to Home.” But where Carver used a female corpse to illustrate the enforced callousness of fraternal play and the insidious way suspicion can infect a marriage, Angel dares an incision into the darkly romantic heart of fifteen-year-old Reece. I put my face in the water and held my breath . . .” he recalls of the night he went back for the girl, “felt the temperature change in the water below me, the shallow warmth giving way to deeper cold, pulled her weight and didn’t think too much about where we were going–only that I could stay this way if she wanted me to.”
Angel has limited herself here to a fairly narrow slice of human experience, and the fast cars, distracted parents and bodies of dead things do pile up, eventually. However, this only makes her way with revelation all the more remarkable. Every time she dives into this all too familiar world, she surfaces with insights both beautiful and strange.
You Only Get Letters from Jail
By Jodi Angel
Tin House Books
Paperback, 9781935639572, 288 pp.