GIVE ME A BOOK that features epigraphs from The Book of Job and Smog's “River Guard.” Give me a book that starts with a pulse of quickness and then hammers steadily for almost 300 pages. Give me Richard Lange's Angel Baby, the book that does all of this and more. Angel Baby, a lean novel that leaps and sings with hard-boiled intuition, is Lange's third book (after a story collection, Dead Boys, and his debut novel, This Wicked World), and it's his best work yet.
We start with a character in crisis: Luz, down in Tijuana, is trying to escape the grips of her crime lord husband, Rolando — El Principe, as he's known around town — a true monster who raped her and killed her dog last time she made a break for it. Now, she's kicked dope (though she's had to pretend to keep using to fool Rolando), and she's got a plan: to find the daughter she left behind in Los Angeles years before.
When Rolando leaves for a business meeting, Luz breaks into his safe and helps herself to stacks of US currency and a silver-plated Colt .45, custom-engraved with snakes and saints. When the housekeeper and guard interrupt her heist, she doesn't hesitate to shoot them before disappearing into the “stinking whirl of the city.” She may have money and a weapon, but she needs transportation across the border, and she's not 100 percent sure that her daughter is still in the same place she left her.
Three other men become central to the story: Malone, a washed-up gabacho who agrees to transport Luz across the border for a hefty fee; Jerónimo, the ex-con Rolando sics on Luz’s tail; and Thacker, a crooked border cop who hatches a plan to rob Luz of the stolen money once she crosses into America. If Angel Baby starts out at a gallop, it pretty quickly settles into a full-on sprint, as the lives of these characters intersect in brutal and, often, heart-wrenching ways. Luz's determination drives the narrative and destroys everything in its path.
One of the book's great successes is that it pushes and pulls you in so many directions. At times, we sympathize most strongly with Jerónimo, Luz's pursuer, a remarkable feat on Lange's part. Other moments find us cheering on Malone, the prototypical noir anti-hero: a failure, haunted by his past, making one final stab at doing the right thing. We question Luz's motives: Is she being selfish? Why put her daughter's life on the line like this? Lange's characters — even the villains — are scarred and marred by tragic histories. What they do with their blood knowledge informs their value as characters. Luz wants to find her daughter and start over. Malone drifts and drifts, dead inside, until he finally drifts to a place where action and caring are required. Thacker is broken, spoiled; we see him do horrible things, and yet we're very nearly moved when he admits that “[he] wouldn't mind being a grandpa someday.” Jerónimo, like Luz, wants to go straight, to have a chance to start fresh with his family, but he's denied that chance over and over again by a world that won't let him be what he wants to be. Rolando is the many-tentacled Devil, reaching across great distances to ruin lives, to assure that his honor is not soiled.
The title of the novel comes from the tattoo that Luz has on the back of her neck. Rolando allowed her to get it because she tricked him into believing “Angel Baby” was his pet name for her, while in reality it’s the title of a song she sang to her daughter, Isabel, in the brief time they had together. The manipulation behind the tattoo is indicative of everything that's admirable about Luz: she's determined and strong, no mere plaything for Rolando, though she's certainly aware of his vast power. Maybe Angel Baby will be off-putting to those who view Luz as a victim. But the fact is that Luz, like so many people, has been caught in the swirl of madness that accompanies poverty and desperation. She needs help now (in the form of money and transportation), but she doesn't need to be saved. Though Malone occasionally acts heroic (he's not, after all, bereft of values), Luz is the hero of this story, a queen among highly corruptible pawns. Thacker, after Rolando, is the worst of them, even though he has a (thin) moral code that won't allow him to hurt a child.
Lange’s prose is masterful, his sense of pacing unfaltering, and he writes about characters on the cutting edge of life. His sentences are sturdy and rhythmically striking; there isn't a line in this novel that will shatter on sight. Towards the end, Malone — trying to drown out the “litany of failure” that spins like reverb in his head — stumbles into a bar where “[a] Budweiser sign gutters in the window” and a “frowsy blonde” sings karaoke to Bon Jovi. Malone then goes to a Taco Bell drive-through where “[the] echoey, amplified voice of the girl taking orders sounds late-night and lonely.” Lange's dark world of despair and redemption is lit up through lines like this, as we're sucked into the quiet tragedies of everyday existence.
Lange deserves a much wider readership. He's settled firmly into a lonely middle ground — too literary for some of the crime crowd, too pulpy for the literary crowd — and he's the finest writer who occupies that space. They’ll call Angel Baby “cinematic,” as if novels weren't quick-paced before movies made it desirable. It does have touchstones in the world of celluloid — Sam Peckinpah's bloody ballets come to mind — and I hope someone turns it into a film, if only to broaden its audience. They'll say other things about it that you've heard before, too. They'll call it “unputdownable” and “a page-turner,” and they'll be spot on. You won't know exactly how right they are until you pick up Angel Baby and it burns you to set it aside for even a minute.