Just a phase
SN&R’s high-school intern bonds with local author Jodi Angel over teen angst, both real and fictionalized
When I showed up at the Naked Lounge at 6 o’clock on a Wednesday night, I was greeted by the familiar hiss of the milk steamer. I immediately started looking for my contact, a local author by the name of Jodi Angel.
I had never seen her before and had figured on meeting the female version of Stephen King. Although Angel’s stories aren’t full of monsters, they take a pretty dark view of adolescent life in the 21st century. Because of her expert storytelling, I assumed that she might have cup-holder glasses and weird posture, and that she might smell like mothballs. There was no picture of her on the back of the book, so I proceeded to walk right past her.
After I had my coffee, I sat right down next to a 20-something-year-old woman. I had started to set up my tape recorder and notes when she turned and asked me how I’d liked the book I was holding. It seemed a little odd that a complete stranger would ask me about a book that hadn’t yet been released. Adopting my most serious critic pose, I commented that it was quite well-written.
She replied with a bright smile, “Hi, I’m Jodi.” It hit me that I’d spent the last 10 minutes looking like a professional ass, and I did an embarrassed stammering number for a second before regaining my composure. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, although she had read a lot of Stephen King, this happenin’ writer had cool hair, a nice smile and some decent threads.
“The History of Vegas” is the title story of Angel’s just-released debut collection of powerful short stories about teens who are balanced on the edge of adulthood with a strong wind blowing. It’s also the story that seems most emblematic of her smooth style. The story opens with the line “I had the taste of ashtray in my mouth, and now and then my Aunt Dolores farted in her sleep across the backseat of my mother’s dirty Chevelle,” and everything rolls out from there for Tommy, the shit-out-of-luck teenage boy on an air-conditioning- and cigarette-less cruise to Sin City to give his Aunt Dolores some time off from her abusive mobster husband, Charlie. Tommy is left alone in a hotel on the Vegas strip, where he proceeds to pick up a pack of smokes and meet a strange girl. The situation hits rock bottom when Uncle Charlie shows up at the hotel door looking for Dolores. Instead, he takes Tommy for what could possibly be the last ride of his life.
“Usually, I just do a good line or a good title. After that, I write a lot in my head and put it all down on paper. Most of the time, everything just clicks and flows from the first line,” Angel said, explaining her writing style. “It’s the best thing ever when everything just dominoes from the original idea.”
Angel’s choice of The History of Vegas as the title for the collection, as she explained it, illuminated the meaning of the stories. “The characters are all in situations that will eventually bottom out, so it’s like the metaphor for where you end up when things go bad,” she said. “It’s more the myth of Vegas that works as the title. I thought that, thematically, they all fit under that idea.”
All of these stories are told in fluent teen lingo, and most people who are or ever were teens will be able to find themselves or someone they know in these stories. The main character in the first story, “Portions,” is an older sibling who enjoys hanging out at the river with friends but also struggles to raise and protect her insecure junior-high-age sister from constant teasing.
Most of the young people in these stories have to make quantum leaps in maturity to compensate for parents who either aren’t there or don’t care. This leads to the characters making real “teen” decisions that would seem reasonable to most kids caught in the same messy situations but that adults would call dangerous, brash or thoughtless. Angel portrays the classic “it seemed like a good idea at the time” thinking that most teens employ all too often.
With such a gift for capturing the emotions and tribulations of America’s teenage wasteland, wouldn’t you expect the writer to have a cracking voice and some acne? Angel just earned her master’s degree at UC Davis, so it’s been a while since her high-school years. And hopefully, she would’ve informed others if she had tracked down the fountain of youth outside one of those Vegas casinos. “I don’t know if it’s a liability or a good thing, but I can naturally slip into the mentality and emotions of being 17,” Angel said, chuckling. “So I guess that I really just remember being a teenager—all the conflicts and living on the edge of everything.”
The voice of her teenage past isn’t all that makes Angel’s stories authentic, though. “I really think that all of my characters are based on lots of people I know or hang out with,” she said. “I just take little shreds of people along the way. It may be somebody I hang out with or someone I meet in a grocery-store line. I never know when some random person will spark an idea for a story.”
Maybe Angel has met a few loan sharks in grocery-store checkout lines, or maybe she hasn’t, but what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. “I know that some of the stories have that gangster element to them, and it’s kind of overdone, but I do it on purpose because that’s the history of Vegas. It’s that Mafioso wanna-be gangster thing, so I used some of that element,” she said. “At the same time, many characters are pieces of real people, and a lot of the things in there have happened.”
Everyday people meld with Angel’s teenage memories and a great amount of creativity to produce a plethora of interesting and hard-hitting stories that seem both real and surreal at the same time. These stories are many things, but they most certainly aren’t a vanguard of good Christian moral values or light and fluffy “coming of age” stories. Rather, these stories are for all of us who haven’t escaped adolescence unscathed.
In fact, some might consider these stories downright pulpy for their casual drug use and sexual content. For instance, one story begins with a peaceful day of ditching and dirt weed by the river, and then progresses to talk about unprotected, drunken sex in a pickup truck. Another one is about two brothers (one of whom is hooked on Los Angeles street scag) who are trying to get out of their mom’s house by sticking up an old-lady heroin dealer in Compton.
But there’s more to these stories than just the images of drugs, sex and violence. Angel uses harsh situations to show the bonds between family members—brothers, sisters, parents and even a dog—and ultimately those relationships have a deeper meaning than all of the gritty stuff. It is Angel’s unflinching devotion to telling it like it is that makes this book so eerily realistic and helps to achieve a deeper meaning through stories that young adult readers—and adults with good memories—can enjoy easily.
Angel’s ability to speak the right language at the right time didn’t exactly come overnight, though. She attended UC Davis’ creative-writing program and found it quite useful. “It afforded me the time to write, and I was able to do some teaching and lecturing. I was working with a bunch of excellent people.” She particularly noted the work she did with Pam Houston, the author of, most recently, Sight Hound. Houston “really influenced my creative voice as well as my ability to write a character-driven story,” Angel said.
Is she interested in teaching as well? “I really do enjoy teaching a lot. I don’t know really how much knowledge I can impart,” Angel said. “I know a lot about practicing skills, and I’m a good reader, but, to quote Stephen King, ‘Anyone who says that they know how to write is full of crap.’” Still, Angel said teaching would be something she’d enjoy while working on her next project.
After the interview, Angel and I talked for a while. When I told her I had just moved to Fair Oaks, she proved that she really could tap into what life was like before a driver’s license. She offered me a ride home from downtown—no sweat. She even promised that there would be no Aunt Dolores to befoul the backseat.