At first it seems fairly easy to categorize Jodi Angel’s style: terse sentences in the voices of economically and emotionally stunted men, many of whom seem like they would rather be drinking than telling a story and who tend to back into a flinty, clipped poetry (“She was dead and now Uncle Nick was dead and it was me who had touched both of them”). In many ways, You Only Get Letters From Jail, Angel’s second collection after The History of Vegas, drives us straight through the middle of Carver country. But when the story “Cash or Trade” ends with its narrator refusing the adult world by returning to the Salinger he briefly abandoned for Kafka, Angel announces what seems to be the book’s real project: to challenge her young male narrators, who want to view themselves as innocents and, in doing so, hide from the real world.
Over and over, women try to draw these men into intimate relationships and the men pull away, often physically and always emotionally. In “Game-Bred,” the narrator tries to pull off a mugging to pay off a gambling debt, only to find that his intended victim is his eighth-grade girlfriend, who chides him for having long ago weaseled out of losing his virginity to her. Another narrator, stuck hanging out with the stepdaughter of a man his mother is trying to seduce, evades the girl’s advances. Even a narrator who brags about having gotten his girlfriend pregnant lives in terror of the girl’s father. Sex is never far from violence or the threat of violence, never more clearly than in the story “Snuff,” in which a bunch of boys watch a snuff film and wonder whether it’s real.
Sex is only one piece of the real world that these characters will do anything to dodge. On the first page of “A Good Deuce,” which is also the first page of the entire collection, a character responds to the death of his mother by watching “eighteen or nineteen hours” of Robert Redford movies. Again and again, when her characters face a crisis, they think about what would happen on TV or in movies. They make up elaborate lies rather than tell the truth about their past (“I knew that it was much easier to breed lies, because they are like rabbits and multiply in the wild on their own.”) When they can’t avoid the real, natural world, they have absolutely no idea what to do with it, which is why this collection portrays so much accidental or otherwise hapless violence against animals.
In all but the very best story collections, what feels like a fruitful theme in one story can feel like a crutch in the next, and reading You Only Get Letters From Jail produces wavering feels about all this violence against animals. There are undeniably moments at which the reader suspects that Angel is throwing a deer or a cat in the path of a car because she can’t figure out another way to get or keep a story going. But as these events recur over the course of the collection, the effect starts to feel compellingly dreamlike. Angel is trying to wake her characters up, and sometimes tossing a dead animal at them is the only way to do that.
Actually, even dead animals usually don’t work. Angel doesn’t seem especially sanguine about her characters’ prospects. Little can keep them from returning to the safety of television—or of Salinger. Unlike Salinger, Angel is not inclined to indulge her characters’ romantic fantasies of themselves as innocents, as something other than phonies. When a narrator reaches for a Holden-esque put-down, he tends to sound merely churlish: “What she knew about cars I could fit into the corner of my eye, pick out with my finger, and wipe across my pants, and I was glad I didn’t have to listen to her.” Here might be where the advantages of Angel’s gender for this particular project become clearest; she has admirably little patience for the laconic braggadocio with which similar characters so often seduce male writers.
The title story, the last in the collection, hinges on a character who tries to craft a persona as a mysterious, damaged Vietnam vet, but who is no more than a Peeping Tom. It doesn’t seem accidental that this closing story is the one where an animal finally gets something like revenge. What this collection lacks in variety it makes up for in harsh, simple ferocity.