White Angel: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Michael Cunningham's White Angel made the short list. Michael Cunningham’s White Angel is a story I should love. It has everything I like in a short story: sex, drugs, love, and rock ‘n roll. I first read White Angel a few years ago, and revisited it this weekend. It’s an interesting tale well told, yet for some reason, I’ve not learned to love the story. It starts out:

We lived then in Cleveland, in the middle of everything. It was the sixties – our radios sang out love all day long.

Frisco goes on to tell the story about his relationship with his older brother Carlton. Carlton taught Frisco about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll when they were teens. Carlton is sixteen, and Frisco is only nine. They drank Southern Comfort and smoked joints in the cemetery behind their house.

A single stone angel, small-breasted and determined, rose amid the more conservative markers close to our house.

Cunningham doesn’t foreshadow, but actually tells us a key moment early on:

Here is Carlton several months before his death, in an hour or so alive with snow that earth and sky are identically white.

Frisco and Cartlon are tripping. They’ve dropped acid and Carlton is guiding Frisco through the process as they hang out in the cemetery.

“Stay loose, Frisco,” he says. “There’s not a thing in this pretty little world to be afraid of. I’m here.”

A few days later, Carlton and his girlfriend are having sex in the graveyard. Frisco stumbles upon the scene and watches, until Carlton becomes aware of his presence.

We lock eyes and spend a moment in mutual decision. The girl keeps on clutching at Carlton’s skinny back. He decides to smile at me. He decides to wink.

One night as their parents are hosting a party, Carlton’s friends show up and start partying with the adults. There is a moment where Frisco’s parents tell him he must go up to bed because it’s getting late.

Around midnight, dim-witted Frank announces he has seen a flying saucer hovering over the back yard.

Frisco sneaks down as everyone empties into the backyard. After looking toward the sky, people return and start dancing but Carlton has apparently jumped the fence into the cemetery for some quiet time.

As Frisco watches from inside the living room, Carlton comes sprinting through the backyard toward the shut sliding glass door.

Carlton’s girlfriend looks lazily out, touching base with her own reflection. I look, too. Carlton is running toward our house. I hesitate. Then I figure he can bump his nose. It will be a good joke on him. I let him keep coming. His girlfriend sees him through her own reflection, starts to scream a warning just as Carlton hits the glass.

This is Carlton’s demise. He has broken through.

Carlton reaches up to take a shard of glass that is stuck in his neck, and that is when the blood starts.

He dies in the arms of his girlfriend before an ambulance arrives. They bury him in the cemetery. The story ends with Frisco explaining how Carlton’s girlfriend cried so hard at the funeral, and how she and her family have moved to Denver.

At least she had protected herself by trying to warn him.

In contrast to the girlfriend, Frisco appears to have been left numb.

This story is often anthologized and used in creative writing classrooms, so it’s a bit intimidating to acknowledge I don’t love it. It’s not the subject matter I don’t like, but I think it’s more the structure. Learning early that Carlton is going to die took the tension out of the story when I first read it. Cunningham appears to have written this story in a way to take the tension out, possibly to mirror the numbness of Frisco as he reflects on his younger years. There is some question as to how reliable a narrator Frisco could be, and this is fine. After all, he is a nine-year-old kid on acid. More than that though, I just didn’t empathize with the narrator or Carlton and wasn’t drawn into the story.

I've now read 28 of the 36 short stories has listed as their "favorite stories," and am looking forward to tackling the final eight and recapping my summer project.