Fiction: Angels Among Usby Carol Wierzbicki
Kristan Ryan, The Hair Princess and the Hog Temple Incident (Behler, 2007)
Two angels masquerade as a hair stylist and a head attendant at the Sunnyside nursing home in Hog Temple, Texas. The mission of Lilly and Hodges, as they are called, seems to be to alleviate the suffering of the nursing home’s residents. Every time Lilly washes and dresses the hair of her customers, she draws out their guilt and regret at mistakes they’ve made over the course of their long lives. Hence her name, the “Hair Princess.”
The complications: the mysterious death of one of the residents, the escape of two more, and the arrival of the Jameses, a kind of unholy trinity of mischievous entities in the form of a middle-aged man, a girl who is born, grows old and dies every day, and a baby. These occurrences kick off a series of events that threaten not only the welfare of the home’s residents, but the very fabric of the universe.
As busy as the plot is with incredible scenes of metaphysical mayhem (the Wal-Mart that nursing home residents Henry and Lee escape to spontaneously combusts; people age and grow younger in the blink of an eye; long-dead friends and lovers reappear and invite Lee and Henry to “do over” their lives), the novel is not without warmth. Readers will find poignancy in the situations of the nursing home residents, as well as those of Lilly and Hodges. Both sets of characters are victims of decisions that have been made beyond the scope of their power. The constant tension between spiritual and earthly needs resonates, strangely enough, with current TV fare: the shows “Saving Grace” and “John from Cincinnati” feature characters who are either supernatural or are in touch with someone from “the other side,” as they struggle to define their values, or just try to survive.
Ryan has a gift for dialogue and vivid characterization. Less convincing is the blending of the allegorical and the real. The multiplicity of characters, both human and fantastical, echoes stories from the Eastern religions, where mystical sprites can cavort with or torment their human subjects—none of which melds easily with the earthy dialogue and everyday situations. In the same book, you find Henry calling Lee a “sorry son of a dog biscuit,” and passages like this:
Earth was where Hodges and she had first been imagined. Earth was the place where souls spun from the untamed thoughts of a God still imagining a self connected across time and multiple universes, knotted themselves into silver webs containing the whims of a supreme being not yet fully realized…
Ponderous moments like these punish the narrative. One yearns for the direct, no-nonsense language of Ryan’s colorful dialogue. Ryan grew up in the Middle East, attended Catholic school and Methodist Sunday school, and was exposed to different religions and philosophies from an early age. She likes to blend social issues like ageism with spiritualism and mysticism, as she did in her previous novel, Strange Angels. There are many interesting thematic and imagistic threads in this story that, if it weren’t so cluttered with complicated plot devices, would have emerged more clearly.
Carol Wierzbickiis the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The Worst Book I Ever Read.