You Only Get Letters From Jail
by Jodi Angel
Tin House Books, 2013
Now and then a short-story collection from a new writer comes along that makes you want to scream, Read this! Which is what I’ve been doing ever since I finished Jodi Angel’s debut collection You Only Get Letters from Jail. These eleven stories feature various teenage boys, on the cusp of manhood but not there yet, from dysfunctional (or deceased) working-class families where alcohol often plays a prominent role. It’s a world Angel captures to a T.
“A Good Deuce,” first published in Tin House, follows a 17-year-old boy and his younger sister in the aftermath of their mother’s death at home, a death which involved a lot of cleaning up and throwing away of “evidence” by the two kids. The grandmother doesn’t want to take the boy, so he heads off with his best friend who says he knows a bar where they don’t card, and where the company of two older girls will steer the evening.
“Cash or Trade” shows a single father, owner of a used car lot, who demotes his teenage son from the good paying job of car washer to mere file clerk as the washing job goes to a hot teen girl in short shorts which draws toots of the horn from passers-by; while “The Last Mile” takes us on a road trip with two young runaways, the girl pregnant, which soon ends as their tires give out, throwing them into a strange, new situation. Another road trip involves a mother, who has purchased a car for her son, which they have traveled a distance to pick up and which soon breaks down as they begin the trip home, showing the young son far more adult than his mother.
There is a story about two boys finding a dead girl in the water at a local creek, reminiscent of Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” which may have been an inspiration, but here we have boys not men who find the body and it takes a different turn.
The title story is also set in the country by a body of water, this time with two teen couples and the younger brother of one. One of the older boys is a mental case – had he been in the war or jail or where? There is an ominous feel to this trip from the very beginning as the tension nicely builds to the final scene.
“Snuff” begins with young boys watching a snuff film and debating whether or not it’s “faked,” but when one of the boys walks out to get back home for curfew and must call his older sister to come get him when he can’t get a ride, the trip home throws up a gruesome encounter of a different sort.
Boys, muscle cars, playing hooky, girlie books, alcohol, cigarettes, guns, adults generally more screwed up than the kids – this is the world you enter in Jodi Angel’s pitch perfect, divinely told stories, set at some time before mobile phones and computers, which give them a refreshing appeal. The straightforward prose, with a heady blend of hope and despair, lures you in and takes you for a heart-tugging, tough and wild ride – like settling into the bucket seat of a cherry 1979 Corvette Stingray L82 with a glass T-top (yeah, that actually appears) and cruising off into this thing called life:
I had not applied to college, my parents didn’t have enough money, and I had none at all, but maybe that would change, and part of me wished I’d be someplace else next year and maybe I would be – there was still plenty of time for anything to happen. In the distance I could hear a muscled-up car go by, loud and strong like a 351 Cleveland hitting 5400 rpm and blowing dual exhaust, and somewhere closer, in that same direction, I could hear brakes lock up, the unmistakable squeal of rubber leaving tread across asphalt, and maybe something or someone getting hit.
Don’t miss this exciting new talent. J.A.
See Catch the Grey Dog in this issue of TBR.
© TBR 2013
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