Novelist issues collection of mysterious short stories

Henry Clayton Wickham

Most mornings, Sister Edgar and Sister Gracie make the drive “past the monster concrete expressway into lost streets” to an abandoned section of South Bronx known in “jocular police parlance” as the Bird. Avian wildlife find homes here among “hillocks of slashed tires laced with thriving vine” and demolished buildings strewn with needles and lined with derelicts and junkies. Edgar and Gracie go about their good work in the slum, distributing food and scouting salvageable junk to fund their humanitarian efforts.

But shortly after the death of a homeless child named Esmeralda, who the sisters have been trying to protect, a nightly phenomenon begins that breaks the monotony of their do-gooding. Each night this supernatural event draws hundreds to a billboard off the expressway, and as hope stirs among the broken down people of the Bronx, author Don DeLillo’s perceptive brilliance emerges. Like other points in DeLillo’s short story collection “The Angel Esmerelda: Nine Stories,” his brilliance comes in the form of a question, not an answer. How do miracles like this finally end? “Do they peter out to some forgotten core of weary faithful huddled in rain?” Most importantly, what hope is left when the magic is gone?

Throughout “The Angel Esmeralda,” DeLillo’s first-ever collection of short stories, the acclaimed novelist wields his favorite themes of isolation, connectivity and fear with skill and precision. People in his stories grope for one another to suppress the deep unease of human life. In DeLillo’s world, this unease comes from being a speck among skyscrapers, from spinning at hundreds of miles per hour on primitive planet of “fault systems,” volcanic eruptions, snowfields and “swirling storm center[s].”

In these stories, DeLillo’s characters all cope differently with their fears. One compulsively cleans her cleaning supplies, another weaves her own comforting lies, while another tries to reduce his life to the minutia of everyday tasks and “forget the measure of our vision, the upwelling awe and dread.” But, invariably, they all seek to connect with others, grasping for “human moments” as they attempt to merge their reality and their fears with the realities of others.

In “The Ivory Acrobat,” Kyle, an American expatriate in Athens, is unnerved by a string of powerful earthquakes and views the mass terror after the event as a kind of protection. “There was some comfort in believing the worst as long as it was the reigning persuasion,” DeLillo writes. To inoculate her “dull-witted terror,” Kyle rehashes the details of the quake with others.

The first story, “Creation,” is probably the most mysterious in the collections — a bizarre love triangle develops between tourists on a remote Caribbean island when they become mired in the dream logic of a local airport and can’t find a flight home. When the narrator’s wife leaves on her own, he finds himself alone on the island with a German woman named Christa. DeLillo weaves a retelling of Book II of Genesis between the two strangers. In his version, God’s creations go unnamed and man is powerless against greater forces.

With the exception of Sister Edgar, DeLillo’s characters rarely do anything. Either their surroundings or their own fear immobilize them. Like Christa and the narrator of “Creation,” they are bound by the “ominous logic” of pointless fate, trapped in a “dreamlike, nightmare of isolation and restraint.”

The second story, “Human Moments in World War III,” is the wide-shot to Creation’s close-up. Two men, the narrator and a young genius named Vollmer, are stationed on a spacecraft for reconnaissance during World War III. As they bide their time in space, padding around in slippers and munching almond crunches, Vollmer reflects on life, earth and the nature of war. Like in much of DeLillo’s work, the dialogue reads like a philosophy lecture. One gets the suspicion the characters are just mouthpieces, props as unreal as the laser technology they use on their spacecraft. However this defect is overcome by the quality of DeLillo’s message and the cosmic poetry of his delivery.

“The Angel Esmeralda” is admirable for its perceptive prose and for the different angles from which DeLillo approaches his age-old themes. At times, DeLillo has the bad habit of bludgeoning his reader with a theme, but it is hard to resent him for the bludgeoning when the writing itself is so elegant and his messages so insightful.

Printed on Monday, November 21, 2011 as: Short story collection alive with humanity