DIRTY LITTLE ANGELS
By Chris Tusa (Alabama: Livingston Press)
[pbk and e-book]
Publisher’s blurb -Set in the slums of New Orleans, among clusters of crack houses and abandoned buildings, Dirty Little Angels is the story of sixteen year old Hailey Trosclair. When the Trosclair family suffers a string of financial hardships and a miscarriage, Hailey finds herself looking to God to save her family. When her prayers go unanswered, Hailey puts her faith in Moses Watkins, a failed preacher and ex-con. Fascinated by Moss’s lopsided view of religion, Hailey, and her brother Cyrus, begin spending time down at an abandoned bank that Moses plans to convert into a drive-through church. Gradually, though, Moss’s 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.
Dirty Little Angels is the sorry tale of Hailey Trosclair, a sixteen-year-old girl from New Orleans. Raised in a family of misfits and ne’er do wells, she lives the flip side of the privileged and cheery Hannah-Montana school of adolescence. Mrs Trosclair has recently taken to her bed nursing an employment-related back-injury and the psychological effects of a miscarriage. Mr Trosclair is unemployed. An adulterer and an alcoholic, he fritters his time at the local pool hall. Cyrus, her nineteen-year-old brother has fallen in with sinister preacher, Moses Watkins. A bundle of nervous adolescent energy, Hailey is tormented by a sense of isolation and strives constantly to connect to both the spiritual and the physical worlds.
Tusa writes a poetics of bleakness. He peers into the heart of a twisted morality that pays lip service to the Christian message of hope, grace and forgiveness, and finds absence and hypocrisy. Even the middle class characters lack charity. Already disinherited by her mother for marrying beneath her at sixteen, Hailey’s age, a crucial point in the novel occurs when Errol, Mrs Trosclair’s brother serves an eviction notice on the family home. Wherever he rests his piercing gaze, it seems, Tusa reveals a debased, fractured society. There are small glimmers, though. Verma, “a skinny black woman with mossy gray hair” occupies the moral centre of the novel, dishing out advice and both practical and financial assistance to the Trosclairs. However, her voice goes unheeded.
Tusa leans heavily on Cormac McCarthy’s Southern Gothic theme of purification through violence to drive the narrative. Mrs Trosclair, a recent convert to Christianity, nags Cyrus to get baptised. Once ’saved’, he collects a biblically inspired tattoo and a knuckle-duster; the obligatory uniform of the retributive Christian. With Moses Watkins, he steals religious statues from the local cemetery and, through Watkins’s hate-filled religious urging, he and Hailey are implicated in a nasty murder.
In places, Dirty Little Angels nods to The Catcher in the Rye, that other American tale of teenage angst. Holden Caulfield’s stance against ‘phonies’, for example, is represented through Hailey’s rejection of ‘best-friend’ Meridian’s ‘boob job’ and collagen-filled lips and also Watkins’s empty religion. Hailey, like Holden, narrates the novel and through her we see life as a series of detailed observations. Unfortunately, like Holden, her off-kilter world-view also drives her insane.
Tighter editing would have solved some of the novel’s annoying little inconsistencies. Hailey’s bed-ridden mother summons the strength to take her dress shopping and at another moment, Hailey’s father reads to her from a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Both incidents sit at odds with the language and imagery of the rest of the novel. It might be that these moments are there to reveal the unreliability of Hailey’s narration. But it’s not clear. At other times, such as when Cyrus and Hailey discuss religion, and when Cyrus displays concern for Hailey, their dialogic exchanges do not quite ring true.
It is a gritty, unrelenting story, peopled with deranged, desperate characters and littered with disturbing images of attempted suicide, sex and violence. Steeped in Carson McCullers’ school of Southern fiction this is a heartbreaking novel that slowly spirals towards its inevitable dark conclusion. Despite its little flaws, Dirty Little Angels is an assured, intelligent debut novel.