In this engaging trilogy of novellas, Chris Crutcher has taken a handful of characters from his earlier works—Sarah Byrnes, Angus Bethune, John Simet, Matt Miller, and Montana West—and imagined them “living outside of their original times and in some cases outside of their original settings” as he describes in his introduction (n. pag.). If you’ve read Crutcher and liked him, you’re in for a real treat, because this book has the same kind of improvisational feel to it that you get from listening in on a jam session of serious jazz musicians. If you’ve never read him before, then you’re still in for a real treat, because even though he writes about serious topics, he does so with a deft hand, never plunging into his topic so deeply that you are overwhelmed, or skimming along the surface of it so lightly you are left wondering why he bothered in the first place.
Although whenever I mention Crutcher’s name to students or especially to other teachers, they always say, “oh, he’s the guy who writes about sports.” And he does, but only peripherally. Crutcher’s true subject matter is the human condition, especially those people whose conditions are bent and twisted out of any recognizable shape that most people give up on them.
For example, in the story “Montana Wild,” the main character, Montana West (a name that pains me to write, but which Crutcher pulls off nevertheless, mainly out of sheer fearlessness) is an almost eighteen-year-old girl who was adopted out of the foster care system by a controlling man and his submissive wife. With Montana about to go off to college, her parents are now fostering another young girl, Tara, with an eye toward adopting her as well. Unfortunately Tara has the habit of pooping where she shouldn’t, and occasionally smearing it around, and as a result her would-be parents, who are at a loss to explain away such behavior as anything other than pure malevolence, are planning to return her to the foster care system. Yes, this is pretty heavy stuff, but Crutcher throws you a rope to help you make sense of it all. Listen to what Montana is thinking as she comforts Tara:
Montana grabs Tara and holds her tight. Tara squirms a moment, then surrenders. How do you tell somebody that? How can she tell her mother that feeling bad feels right when everything in your world is wrong; that at first you need your foster parents to make things familiar, which in this case means f***ed up. It makes such sense at a heart level, but even for a wordsmith like Montana West, it’s impossible to articulate. It’s so true, and it sounds so crazy.
In less capable hands, that passage would come across as incredibly trite or crass, but Crutcher is an old pro, able to hold up and explain the complicated bits of life that a lot of people would prefer to not look at; bits that are not pretty, that make us uncomfortable, and that can make us sometimes doubt our own humanity. After all, what would the rest of us do when faced with a child like Tara?
Crutcher actually worked for many years as a child and family therapist, and although he shows us some pretty rough stuff, he respects his readers enough not to spare them the gory details. He also knows that gory details alone to do not create verisimilitude, and can actually detract from it. He is experienced enough, both as a writer and a therapist, to know that the believability comes from a careful balance of ingredients, not just a haphazard tossing of random ingredients into the bowl.
One additional note:
These three novellas aren’t just thrown into the book; they’re linked together because all the main characters are members of a therapy group led by Noburu Nakatani, who goes by the name of Mr. Nak. If you’ve read Crutcher’s autobiography, King of the Mild Frontier, you’ll probably see a lot of the author in Mr. Nak. (No surprise there: it’s about impossible to write anything—poem, short story, novel—that is not in some way somewhat autobiographical.)
Mr. Nak introduces the book, and his notes on the two main characters in each novella introduce that particular novella. This is, in fact, a frame story, in which a bunch of shorter tales are linked together by a logical, if somewhat arbitrary, story element. Much as the characters in The Canterbury Tales are linked by their pilgrimage to Canterbury, so too are the characters in Angry Management linked by their participation in Mr. Nak’s therapy group, even though that is a very small part of the book. In their own particular way, each character is on their own pilgrimage, if not to salvation, then at least to peace with the world. Do they find it?
Read this book and find out.
Crutcher, Chris. Angry Management. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2009.