Monday, August 27, 2012

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is one of those writers I feel I ought to read more of. He's published 15 novels, won a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and more. His novels are respectfully reviewed. That I've not read more than Underworld is a comment on my failure not on DeLillo's as a writer.

I thought the first 100 pages of Underworld—the final game of the 1951 pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants as attended by J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra—incredibly powerful. So much so that the rest of the book seemed to be a slog. Indeed, the writing (and musings) seemed too rich for my taste. Again, my failure.

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, however, while rich and thoughtful, can be read in short stretches. I mostly read one a night because more was, for me, too much. The stories, written over the last 32 years, are each very different, each affecting in a different way. It almost seems as if DeLillo is using the story form to experiment with different approaches, voices, characters.

The title story, which was published first in Esquire and was chosen for as one of The Best American Short Stories 1995, follows an elderly nun as she and a much younger nun as they distribute food in the wasteland of the South Bronx. Here's the beginning of Sister Edgar's day:

"She knelt in the folds of the white nightgown, fabric endlessly laundered, beaten with swirled soap, left gristled and stiff. And the body beneath, the spindly thing she carried through the world, chalk pale mostly, and speckled hands with high veins, and cropped hair that was fine and flaxy gray, and her bluesteel eyes—many a boy and girl of old saw those peepers in their dreams."

(The Blogger spellcheck doesn't approve of "gristled," "flaxy," or "bluesteel." Tough.)

Here from "Hammer and Sickle," published in 2010, are the narrator's thoughts as he stands on a highway bridge outside the minimum security Federal prison in which he is an inmate:

"I watched and listened, unaware of passing time, thinking of the order and discipline of the traffic, taken for granted, drivers maintaining a distance, fallible men and women, cars ahead, behind, to the sides, night driving, thoughts drifting. Why weren't there accidents every few seconds on this one stretch of highway, even before morning rush? This is what I thought from my position on the bridge, the surging noise and sheer speed, the proximity of vehicles, the fundamental differences among drivers, sex, age, language, temperament, personal history, cars like animatronic toys, but that's flesh and blood down there, steel and glass, and it seemed a wonder to me that they moved safely toward the mystery of their destinations."

It seems a wonder to me that someone can create sentences like these. The most I can do is admire them and suggest you read the book.

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