Author Chris Tusa contacted me with a request that I read and review his debut novel, “Dirty Little Angels” because one of my favorite books is “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” by Joanne Greenburg, which features a sixteen-year-old girl in the grip of madness. Mr. Tusa said he thought I’d like his novel because it also depicted a disturbed girl’s mental illness.
With this frame of reference, I sat down to read “Dirty Little Angels,” only to discover that these two books bore no similarities. While Ms. Greenburg’s work is a lush, heart-wrenching tale of a girl’s journey back to sanity with the aid of a compassionate therapist, Mr. Tusa’s novel is a snapshot of teenager Hailey Trosclair’s life, depicted in unsettling detail at a wallowing pace that forces the reader to dwell upon each added layer of misery as the story unfolds.
Skilled characterization on the part of the author keeps his point of view character from becoming a cliché. Hailey’s world contains the requisite “white trash” elements: poverty, drugs, sex, alienation, an unemployed father who drinks too much and squanders his days at the local pool hall, a mother whose choice of husband caused her to be disowned by her wealthy family, and a brother who thinks nothing of allowing his younger sister entry into his circle of psychopaths and thugs. Hailey is simply a lost soul battered about by –and indifferent to—the world she inhabits.
This isn’t a novel where the lines between good and evil are cleanly divided. The world depicted in “Dirty Little Angels” is a morass of hopelessness and ambivalent morality, evinced by the disintegrating family structure surrounding Hailey and the encroaching horrors of poverty and despair. An interesting thing that leapt out at me in the narrative was how cars were used as an extension of the characters. For example, Hailey’s uncle Errol owns their home, and he wants to evict the family from the property because the mortgage payments are in arrears. Errol drives a shiny yellow Hummer, compared to the old orange Nova with the rusty bumper her father drives. Hailey’s mother’s Saturn is repossessed during the first 10 pages of the book. A particularly nasty character named Moses drives a “ratty green Omni with bald whitewalls and a broken taillight.” When Hailey becomes infatuated with a man named Chase, the subtext of what cars reveal about the characters in this book did not bode well for their relationship. Chase drove “a fully restored black 1968 Firebird with silver mag rims. He had a silver fish emblem on his rear fender, like the one you see on all the Christians’ cars, except this fish had legs.” Hailey’s girlfriend Meridian is often seen on or near the dented hood of a black Buick, and Meridian turns out to have a heart just as black as the paint job on the car. Hailey’s brother Cyrus drives a Hyundai, but for the most part his vehicle is not given a personality, just as Cyrus himself is never fully revealed to the reader.
This novel would not have worked for me if the characters had not surpassed the typical stereotypes. Hailey evokes compassion in the reader while falling short of becoming likeable, yet behavior such as her kindness toward the dying cancer patient Mr. Guidry redeems her. The scene between Hailey and her mother at the fancy dress shop in the French Quarter hints at the type of bond that might have existed between mother and daughter under different circumstances, making the scene particularly poignant.
Hailey is far from innocent; she participates in scenes of shocking violence, and even when the violence is eventually directed inward, her actions seem to be more of a knee-jerk reaction to events in her life, rather than a manifestation of mental illness. The author’s oft-repeated symptom of Hailey’s mental breakdown, described as “the roaches had been crawling around inside my head,” was weak and unnecessary when the actions of the character clearly revealed a coming apart of her psyche.
While I would not compare this novel to classics such as “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mr. Tusa has proven himself capable of writing gritty, gripping prose that focuses a bright light on aspects of modern society that many would prefer remain hidden.