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BOOK REVIEW

Ah, those twisted little darlings

A Better Angel Stories Chris Adrian Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 228 pp., $23

August 10, 2008|Lizzie Skurnick

WHEN does the tragic cross into the lurid -- and the lurid become simply horrid? Interested parties might take Chris Adrian's collection of short stories, "A Better Angel," the follow-up to his critically acclaimed novels "Gob's Grief" and "The Children's Hospital," as something of a case study.

"A Better Angel" seeks to examine what one can only call the dark night of the soul, although too often, it reads like a thriller without the thrill. In "The Sum of Our Parts," an outraged lab tech throws blood at a patient. "High Speeds" portrays a child who decorates his paper-plate turkey with expletives, then is abducted by a disturbed teacher. In "The Changeling," meanwhile, a father chops off his hand to get his son's attention, a narrative road bump to ensure we remain alert.

"Finished!" cries a ghost in the title story, whose heart has been torn out. Finally loosed from her body, "she took off, went up and away, in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing, impenetrable sadness." Good God. Where's my E-Z passage?

Like many an author with a dim view of humanity, Adrian often chooses a child character to transmit his grim message. In the right hands, such preternaturally venomous children can be great fun, their innocent faces masking sardonic depths. (Think "The Turn of the Screw" and all its "Shining" spawn.)

But for Adrian, this is just a scrim, a way to avoid writing from the point of view of an actual prepubescent. Take the 9-year-old narrator of "High Speeds," who recites Emily Dickinson and purports to be reading Thomas Merton to "become a better person." His literary tastes also run racier: As his mentally unstable teacher puts her hand on his thigh, he thinks of " 'More Joy of Sex,' of all the penetration lovingly rendered in charcoal." Adrian should have at least worked in a Cray-Pas here somewhere.

"Stab" takes us to even more preposterous heights. Calvin, an 8-year-old, has lost his mirth after the death of his twin, Colm. (It's serious: In December, he refuses to declare his Christmas wishes to the man in red: "I knew he was a false Santa," he says.) Taken in by another 8-year-old, Molly, he joins her on nightly treks in which she kills small animals with a "bodkin" she's been given by her father. Leaving aside the notion that your average 8-year-old can hardly trot around on nightly trips undetected, how do we grapple with the scene where Molly works up to killing an Appaloosa? (Could Molly, you know, even reach an Appaloosa?)

Eventually, Calvin and Molly turn their sights on the sheriff. There is a grim physical humor in the thought of two 8-year-olds trip-tripping over the ice to lay murderous hands on the "false Santa" himself, but it's quite difficult to kill a grown person -- as Adrian, a pediatrician, should know.

It's not that children cannot be seriously murderous. Take Roald Dahl's "The Swan," in which two boys torment a third, going so far as to lay him on train tracks, which he survives, before requiring him to fly, which he presumably does not. Dahl achieves quite credible terrors through the accumulation of small, discrete details, which build to an unbearable conclusion. Calvin too cheats death by lying under a train, but his survival owes a bit more to Camille. ("I want to live!" he cries.)

You can't deny that Adrian's prose is lovely, and if his characters' consciousness rarely fits the role he's chosen for them, a real heart lies beneath. That's the stuff Adrian needs to find pumping -- in stories where they can live as themselves, not as jerky zombies rattling around the haunted houses of the soul.

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Lizzie Skurnick has reviewed for the New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and other publications. Her book on vintage young adult literature will be published next year.

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