The Angel Esmeralda, by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo is one of America’s most acclaimed and influential novelists, with 16 novels spanning the past 40 years. But his writing career started a decade earlier with a number of short stories published in literary magazines. This is his first and only collection; nine stories cover the period from 1979 to 2011. The first two decades are not represented here – DeLillo had a prolific output in his early days and has admitted to feeling that his earlier works were written hastily. There would surely be room for a collection of these forerunners to see how his literary talent developed.
Of all his novels, Underworld (1997) is the most critically acclaimed, so it is fitting that this collection should take as its title story a piece later included in the novel. ‘The Angel Esmeralda’ is set in the deprivation and danger of the Bronx, where a small group of nuns and youth workers try to bring practical help to the residents. A young girl, Esmeralda, is noticed by one of the nuns – seen from a distance, never close up. But within days the girl is raped and murdered, just one more scarcely-known soul in this hopeless world.
And so she becomes an angel…
With little else to their names, people still have traditions, memories. When a child dies the youth team paints an angel on the side of a vacant building. Sometimes the angel wears sneakers, or a baseball cap, or some other distinguishing feature. Esmeralda has running shoes and a pink sweatshirt. Her angel appears overnight – one of many.
But then there are rumours, stories of something strange, something unexplained. Esmeralda’s face has been seen, at night, on a billboard at the edge of the neighbourhood. Passing trains illuminate the billboard and for a moment people see visions. ”Visions for the poor” as one of the nuns dismisses them. But the older nun, the one who first noticed Esmeralda, needs to see for herself. And amid a growing crowd of onlookers she does see something, a symbol of hope, a face much more noticed in death than in life.
“How do things end?” is the question thrown out into the closing lines of the story. As more people flock to see this modern miracle there are accidents, flare-ups, and the authorities have to take action. The billboard is blank; the face no longer appears; the people go back to their lives. Still trapped, whether with new hope or discouragement.
And this is a theme in many of these stories. Their characters are often confined in some way. In ‘Creation’ the main character is unable to leave a remote holiday island because of continual problems with flights. But his captivity is not absolute; he does not seem to make a serious attempt to leave, but accepts his limbo-like existence. In ‘Hammer and Sickle’ the confinement is that of a prison – but a minimum security prison where the inmates have little inclination to escape. Many of them are financial fraudsters and the outside world – this story is set amid the turmoil of recent years – probably seems more risky than the ordered life “inside”.
Other characters seem more confined mentally than physically, such as the woman (in ‘The Ivory Acrobat’) who fears aftershocks following a powerful earthquake. She lives in a paralysis of inaction; she could leave the city if she tried, but has reasons (excuses?) not to. In ‘The Starveling’ a divorced couple continue living together, each needing the other in some way. The main character here is also locked into his obsession with watching films and recording the details.
There’s an outback saying, “Choose your rut carefully – you’ll be in it a long time.” The characters here are in ruts of their own; closed paths, a fixed running circuit or the orbit of a spaceship; ruts they could escape, but escape would take them out of a certain comfort zone. They get by; the consequences of decisive action, of making a change, are perilous. And so they live with contradictions, as so many of us do. DeLillo’s people are not the sharply focussed individuals of Frantzen or Roth, but vague, almost spiritual. Angels, perhaps?