"I know but . . ."
"This family. I swear to God, it's like we're drowning in quicksand or something. We're up to our eyes in it, all of us. And we don't even know it."
"I know, Cyrus. But you can't protect me from everything, you know."
"This family's poisonous, Hailey. The only way you're gonna make anything of your life is to get as far away from us as you can. Just promise me you're gonna go away to college when you graduate. Please, Hailey. Just promise me that." (from Dirty Little Angels, page 83)
Dirty Little Angels is Chris Tusa's first novel, but you'd never know it. He brilliantly captures the thoughts of a 16-year-old girl, telling the story of Hailey Trosclair, who is trying so desperately to save her family. The Trosclairs live in the New Orleans slums; her mother has been ill since a miscarriage six months before the book opens, and her father has been out of work just as long. Hailey's mother comes from an affluent family who disowned her when she got married, and rather than look for work to support his family, her father spends all of his time at the poolhall and with his waitress/stripper girlfriend.
In telling Dirty Little Angels in the first person, we know Hailey's every thought, which is a scary thing with regard to this story (at least from my point of view as a mother of a young girl). Hailey's best friend, Meridian, is very promiscuous, obnoxious, and definitely not someone you'd want your daughter to be around constantly. But Hailey's parents aren't taking an active role in her life, as they are preoccupied with their marriage and financial troubles. Her older brother, Cyrus, does his best to take care of her and protect her, but he has problems of his own. He runs with a bad crowd and has a criminal record. With Hailey tagging along, he gets involved with Moses, a hoodlum with a twisted view of Christianity who plans to convert a dilapidated bank into a drive-through church. Moses is the type of guy who thinks sinners need to pay for their sins, and he is the one to handle the punishment. His involvement in Hailey and Cyrus' lives leads to their eventual downfall...and that's all I'll say about the plot.
Religion is one of the main themes in Dirty Little Angels, as Hailey prays for her family to come out okay, and these prayers go unanswered. Meanwhile, her mother has become religious and is shoving her beliefs down everyone's throats, forcing Cyrus to "get saved" after his arrests. It's interesting how Hailey is affected by both her mother's and Moses' views of religion.
Tusa is a great writer, and his talent shines through in his descriptions. I could picture the characters and the scenes clearly in my mind. Here are two of my favorite passages:
That night I dreamed of Mama's flesh creaking as the doctor unstitched the trapdoor in her stomach. Her insides looked like crushed red velvet, and the baby's skin was blue as a robin's egg. I imagined the stitches in her stomach, tiny black mouths puckering between the folds of her belly. I remember wondering where the baby's cries had gone, if they had stayed inside Mama's body after the doctors stitched the trapdoor shut. (page 1)
When we got there, the officer brought Cyrus and me into a white room with glass walls. A few minutes later, another man came in and sat down. He was an older fat man with a stubbly chin and a bald liver-spotted skull. He had tiny baby teeth that looked like someone had plugged little white Chiclets into his gums, and you could smell Old Spice seeping from his pores. His hips looked wider than they were supposed to be, like he'd had someone else's hips welded onto his skeleton, and his chest looked like Brandon Piggert's chest the summer he'd grown little midget boobs after shooting up a batch of steroids. The skin on his face was pocked, and it reminded me of the girl's face from The Exorcist. (page 64)Tusa's characters are attention-grabbing, and I felt attached to Hailey from the start. I felt so bad about her family problems, and I cringed each time she made a really, really dumb decision. I had to remind myself that I, too, was impulsive as a teenager, though on a much less dramatic scale. With Hailey's descriptions of her sexual experiences and a few acts of violence, Dirty Little Angels is a dark, gritty novel not for the faint of heart.
My only complaint is that the ending felt rushed. Rather than tie up all the loose ends, Tusa opens up a new can of worms on the last two pages. While it wasn't a horrible ending, it left me wanting to know more about what happens to Hailey and the ramifications of the action in the last scene. Still, I enjoyed the book overall, I'd definitely recommend it, and I certainly would read more by this author in the future.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Dirty Little Angels from the author for review purposes.