DIRTY LITTLE ANGELS by Christopher Tusa
If an examination question asked, "What if the theme of Dirty Little Angels, by Christopher Tusa, (a) a morality play; (b) a coming of age novel; (c) a study of the new South? The answer would be: all of the above.
Told from the point of view of Hailey, a sixteen year old girl and youngest child in a dysfunctional Southern family, the narrative slices some episodes from her life to develop each of these themes.
Mama's miscarriage opens the narrative and big brother Cyrus (age 20) explains to Little Sis, Hailey, that "it's like a ball of meat squirming in Mama's stomach." The reviewer begins to wonder if this is one of the title dirty little angels. There are references throughout the story, tombstone statuary, and Cyrus and Hailey themselves, that make one wonder just who the little angels are. The answer emerges: there are dirty little angels throughout this tale.
Hailey Trosclair is 16, smart, feisty, and steadfast. She loves her family and is loyal to Daddy, brother Cyrus, Mama, and school friend Meridian. Loyal except when she is pissed off, hurt, abandoned or betrayed. Mr. Tusa brings teenage angst to the forefront clearly and vividly. The reader suffers along with the 16-year old Haley and empathizes.
Yet as Hailey is revealed through the author's words, we begin to worry about her sanity: "cockroaches in my head"; "the world around me had become fuzzy and scattered"; "my thoughts were growing little feet and tiptoeing out of my head;" and later, "like my skull was cracked open and light was pouring from my head." His phrasing is skillful, and vibrant, almost skin tingling.
Cyrus is the really bad boy we love. He cares for his sister Hailey, tries to guide her down righteous paths, protect her from dangers, emotional hurts, even physical harm. The other side of Cyrus engages Hailey in his immoral and risky escapades. He takes it lightly when it involves drinking, smoking dope and attending little out-of-the way gatherings involving illegal and illicit activities. Cyrus has served time in prison, has a parole officer. Good boy/bad boy Cyrus tries to make amends with the world, tries to do loving acts for Mama, tries to deal with Daddy. Sometimes it just doesn't work. Is Cyrus a "good" law-abiding example? Definitely not. Does he scrupulously observe a strong personal moral code? He does.
Skillful phrasing captures language of a Southern subculture ands paint a canvas of beauty, humor and wretchedness:
"I stared out the car window, stars blinking through black walls of pine, the silver breeze crawling through my hair.
"He had a full head of black hair. It was so greasy it looked like someone had combed it with an eel."
"They got the souls of a shook chicken egg."
Hailey after watching, and then participating in, the beating of a child molester: "It was a power I'd never known before." "It was kind of exciting."
Her brother took part in the event: "Cyrus was hitting him so hard I thought the kid’s bright blue eyes were going to roll out of his head."
The story continually peels back layers and reveals a new facets of these people and their actions and personalities. Hailey navigates the landscape of this novel observing, learning, and not always succeeding. Then, the author covers this with a new layer of paint that turns the readers thoughts upside down.
It's not William Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Clyde Edgerton. But reader, make no mistake about it, this is the South. Like other great storytellers, Mr. Tusa shares his gift for introducing the world-at-large to the South. He has the ability to illustrate the idiosyncrasies of the individual, and the characters seem to cherish their own eccentricities. Here the reader develops a fondness for the matchless Southern personality. Here the author examines the age-old questions of teenagers and young adults, of old and new loyalties, what is right and wrong versus what is good and what is bad.
This novel is stark and gritty; mesmerizing storytelling. Chris Tusa is a voice to be listened to.