Black Wings Has My An­gel

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - by El­liott Chaze, New York Re­view of Books, 209 pages

Over 50 years af­ter the hey­day of noir fic­tion, read­ing it can be an ex­er­cise in cliché im­mer­sion. Slip­pery dames, con men on the lam — these tropes have be­come so in­ter­twined with the genre that even when read­ing aces like Ray­mond Chan­dler and Jim Thomp­son, it’s some­times hard to make out in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters and their unique cir­cum­stances among the fa­mil­iar, seedy haze of the noir uni­verse. En­ter Black

Wings Has My An­gel, El­liott Chaze’s re­cently reis­sued 1953 mas­ter­piece. In it, an es­caped con­vict who calls him­self Timothy Sun­blade cooks up the heist of his life with Vir­ginia, a laven­der-eyed for­mer call girl who will be­tray any man for an ex­tra dol­lar. With that plot, Chaze plants his story se­curely in the noir fir­ma­ment, but Timothy and Vir­ginia soar off the page, and their predica­ment stays with the reader long af­ter the grue­some grand fi­nale.

It’s fit­ting that au­thor Barry Gif­ford has writ­ten the in­tro­duc­tion to this lost gem. He cre­ated Sailor and Lula, the sexy star-crossed duo who rose to no­to­ri­ety in the 1990 David Lynch film adap­ta­tion of Gif­ford’s novel Wild at Heart, and whose mod­ern-day chem­istry is matched by the ag­gres­sive heat be­tween Timothy and Vir­ginia. They meet in a flea-bit­ten ho­tel on Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, where Timothy takes a break from rough­neck­ing on an oil rig to hire a “ten-dol­lar tramp.” He gets Vir­ginia, whose posh man­ners and ex­pen­sive clothes be­tray her as a woman of the world, on the run and on the take. To the strains of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time,” the two get to know each other. Pretty soon they’ve blown town to­gether and are speed­ing west­ward in Timothy’s blue Packard, the ker­nel of a plan de­vel­op­ing in his larce­nous mind.

The elec­tric qual­ity of Chaze’s prose el­e­vates these com­mon lovers to sub­lime sta­tus. The au­thor is aware of his cho­sen genre’s ten­dency to­ward tacky chest­nuts, mak­ing good fun of it: “Her skirt was gray flan­nel and it fit­ted as if it had been smeared on her, and be­low it were the legs. You hear and read about legs. But when you see the re­ally good ones, you know the things you read and heard were a lot of trash.” But though Timothy’s voice is jaded, he can be earnest in de­scrib­ing the beauty he en­coun­ters — in women and in the nat­u­ral land­scape. As the Packard winds north through the Ra­ton Pass to Den­ver, Timothy phi­los­o­phizes about the dif­fer­ences be­tween the vis­tas of the South and the West: “Out West all the smells are sucked up out of the baked land by the sun. And it’s as if all the col­ors in the ground are gob­bled up by their sun­sets, and so is the blue of the sky. The sky is high and pale and im­per­sonal and you get the feel­ing it doesn’t be­long to you at all, but that it is the prop­erty of the cham­ber of com­merce. In the South the sky is hu­mid and low and rich and it’s yours to smell and feel. In the West you’re only an ob­server.”

The ex­quis­ite writ­ing is sur­pris­ingly con­tem­po­rary, which makes it hard not to get sucked into this violent, vin­tage world, even if the plot strains credulity at times. In Den­ver, Timothy and Vir­ginia rent a house and pose as a young mid­dle-class cou­ple as they pre­pare to carry out a rob­bery with a life-chang­ing pay­off. Their imi­ta­tion of 1950s sub­ur­ban inanity is a sly par­ody; ev­ery evening they’re “wa­ter­ing and wa­ter­ing the lawn in the dusk, each night mak­ing the tra­di­tional Den­ver mud­pie out front of the mousey brick bun­ga­low. Re­spectabil­ity all over the place.”

With Vir­ginia, Chaze cre­ates a fully formed fe­male foil to Timothy; her du­plic­ity and crim­i­nal in­no­va­tions ri­val Timothy’s own, and her vicious, un­pre­dictable na­ture stands out as even more pow­er­ful and mys­te­ri­ous than he can fathom. One thing’s for sure: He’s got it bad, and the novel peaks with the fa­tal­is­tic lyri­cism he uses to sing her praises. The cou­ple en­gage more than once in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, but Vir­ginia gives as good as she gets. The reader never feels, as with some noir nov­els, that the woman is re­duced to a fetish ob­ject — Vir­ginia is, make no mis­take, as trig­ger-happy and greed-driven as Timothy. In a mem­o­rable jail scene, Vir­ginia comes up with the idea to com­mu­ni­cate an es­cape plan to Timothy as the two are singing Sun­day hymns with the other pris­on­ers: “I had to lis­ten sharp to get any of what she sang to me. The word ‘mur­der’ sounds odd in a hymn. So does ‘gun.’ ”

Black Wings Has My An­gel is fiendishly paced, hurtling to­ward its ul­tra-cin­e­matic de­noue­ment, which in­volves an aban­doned Crip­ple Creek mine shaft called the Katie Llewellyn. The book is rife with mi­nor yet in­deli­ble de­tails and char­ac­ters that would be throw­away for another writer, and it’s no won­der that Gif­ford’s in­tro­duc­tion de­scribes Chaze as “a dis­ci­ple of Hem­ing­way. … Like Hem­ing­way, he was a news­pa­per­man — the five Ws (who, what, where, when, why) were his com­mand­ments.” Chaze, who died in 1990, pub­lished 10 nov­els, worked for the As­so­ci­ated Press in New Or­leans and Den­ver, and served for 10 years as the city ed­i­tor for the Hat­ties­burg Amer­i­can. He clearly knew the power of a good story, but more im­por­tantly, he had the style, in spades, to tell it with. This de­monic ar­ti­fact is the real deal; with its reemer­gence, fans of both pulp and lit­er­ary fic­tion have rea­son to re­joice. — Molly Boyle

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