Black Wings Has My Angel
by Elliott Chaze (1953)
NYRB Classics (2016)
This past weekend I ventured into some dark corridors by watching the new Criterion Collection release of Gilda (which I wrote about here) and reading NYRB Classics’ latest release Black Wings Has My Angel. Both were much darker and much more disturbing that I was expecting. They depict people doing hideous things, and with little more reason than spite with a smidgen of greed. Strangely, I loved the trip! And if Gilda is mostly disturbing in its subtext, Black Wings Has My Angel comes right out and punches you with its violence and ugliness.
When the book begins, our narrator, Tim Sunblade, is looking back on what we might call the beginning of his troubles. Having escaped from prison and recently finishing an exhausting job on a drilling rig, he’s now travelling to Colorado to do the perfect heist. One night, he decides to hire a prostitute, but the woman who shows up is not what he’d consider the typical “ten-dollar tramp.” Instead, Virginia is intelligent and has plans of her own, so they travel together. However, though the heist is a two-person job, and though Tim is enjoying his time with Virginia, he has no intention of staying with her for long. Rather, he intends to leave her at some “john” off the road. He’s shocked to find that she’s one step ahead of him, though. So he decides she might be the perfect partner.
When we get to the next chapter, we learn that Tim is back in prison, on death row, in fact. We don’t know exactly what went wrong. As he continues his story, though, we see the crime itself take a bit of a back seat as he and Virginia seek cover by pretending to be husband and wife, complete with Tim getting a job. It’s like watching the good family with the really dark secret life, complete with an abusive love-hate relationship and criminal plans. Their relationship — and, naturally, Virginia has a load of secrets she keeps from Tim — is very much the focus. So much so that the crime itself is done and won relatively soon in the novel. Now they have to live with their winnings, and that only makes them more warped:
I was sick of Virginia, too, and of what the money had done to the both of us, changing a tough, elegant adventuress with plenty of guts and imagination into a candy-tonguing country club Cleopatra who nested in bed the whole day long and thought her feet were too damned good to walk on.
I mentioned above that this book, though shadowy, does not keep the violence in the shadows. It’s a disturbingly frank look at the ugly things these two will do to each other and to those who stand in their way as they get closer and closer to their own doom. The book is strengthened greatly, though, by the fact that each character is highly aware of their doom. They may try to outrun it momentarily, like Bonnie and Clyde, but they know they’re going to get caught. The best parts are when Tim thinks about his own existence as a tenuous object:
Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this is clear to you when you know the very day you’re going to die. Take me, for instance. I’ve always been scared to death of cancer and once I was sure I had cancer of the lung. And for a year I’ve fretted having a tooth filled because when anything cold hits it the thing bothers me. But I’ll never die of cancer of the lung and I won’t have to go to the dentist with that tooth. Now I know that. Now I know how much of the twenty-seven years was pure junk.
Tim’s life itself, what we glean from his narration, is a bit of a testament to this. In some ways, he tried to do the things one is expected. When the war was going on, he was there and suffered a head wound. He actually went to college at Washington and Lee, and he hated everything the students’ vacuous lives stood for. If he looks back on his years as being mostly junk, he finds some perfect moments with Virginia.
Chaze’s prose is as hard-boiled as it comes (just thumbing at random: “By midnight I’d combed more restaurants and bars than Duncan Hines covers in a week.”), but the preoccupation with life and death is sophisticated and strangely compelling. When I started the book, I knew little about it and didn’t do much research on where it came from, and I was always pleasantly drawn in. I’m now surprised, having looked behind the scenes, to see that it has languished out of print for decades, despite efforts to put it back in print by at least one man, Barry Gifford, who provides a great introduction to this edition, an edition I find very welcome indeed . . . now, to see if I can find some lighter fare.