Bristling with irony thick and barbed as porcupine quills, Mark Steadman’s novel “Angel Child” follows in the venerable and savage tradition of Mark Twain, who could write: “Nobody was hurt; only a nigger got killed.” “Angel Child” delivers up to us the community of Whippet, Ga., seen through the persona of Langston James McHenry, the book’s central character, whose humble and increasingly disfigured beginnings we follow through childhood, adolescence and marriage to a woman as suitably ugly as himself. The birth of two sons follows; one, Halstead, conforms to his family’s impossibly ill-favored genealogy. The other, Gabriel, albeit feeble-minded, is as beautiful as his angel namesake.
Perhaps it is the “genetic backfire” of Gabriel’s beauteous arrival that heralds the central event of the novel, the meeting with a black man, Bodine Alma Polite, and the vagaries of their mutually begrudging and subtly changing alliance:
“What I can’t figure out is how you managed to get by all this time and keep your head out of a rope. . . .”
“I done time.”
“You got off easy. What you done time for ?”
“Stole me a hawg.”
“How soon they catch you?”
“I got me a meal off him.”
“What they give you?”
“Five. I done three.”
“I hope that hawg was a good one.”
“He’s pretty sweet.”
“Five years sweet. . . ?”
“I only done three. I was hongry.”
“That’s high meat any way you figure it.”
“They ain’t going to leave a nigger alone in Braxton County til he done time. I be free and clear now.”
“They don’t have to pay you welfare if you done time . . . How long ago that happen?”
“Eighteen years, come October . . . . It stays in your mind. They put the chains on us back then.”
Langston James evolves a strategy to govern their elaborately unspoken friendship. He gives Bodine a job. Later, deeply threatened by the appearance of a child as well favored as Gabriel, he proposes a day trip “to think,” which takes them past Waycross to Tybee Beach:
“In the summer of 1959, with no war going on, it was a friendly local sort of place. . . . Dogs were welcome on the beach, but Negroes weren’t. It was an arrangement that didn’t get amended until the late ‘60s, at which time it was reversed, so that Negroes were allowed on the beach, but not dogs. Langston James had not counted on that particular feature.
“I got niggered out in Waycross. . . . I be God damned if I’ll be niggered out of the Atlantic Ocean.”
He buys Bodine an enormous shovel. “This here’s your Dis guise.”
“What you want me to do-- hide behind of it?”
“All you got to do is carry it. Long as they think you’re working it’ll be okay. . . . Long as you don’t look like you enjoying yourself.”
“Some pleasure,” remarks Bodine.
Meantime, Mrs. Adelaide Fanshaw, the woman who in 1936 ran over Langston James in her Packard, contributing to his subsequent disfigurement, catches sight of Gabriel. As she all but adopts him, smothering him with toys and treats his parents are too poor to have, Langston James’ ambivalent feelings about Gabriel take on an increasingly darker cast. More and more he gives voice to his irrational impulse to reclaim his child by disfiguring him. It is Bodine who discourages him. Then one day, abruptly, Bodine disappears:
“Though he had known Bodine for nearly seven years, he didn’t know exactly where he lived, and had never been to visit him in his house. . . .
“You want to see him?” the woman asked.
“He here at the house?”
“They got him laid out down to Dalton’s. . . .”
Langston James stood up and looked at the woman for a minute. “I never seen his house before. . . . Would you mind if I took a look around?”
“You mean inside ?”
But the real shock is reserved for him at Dalton’s, where he uncovers the truth about his friend Bodine. With this discovery, Langston James is prompted to consult his wife, Cowie:
“God damn, Cowie, I known him for seven years. We ain’t talking about some field hand walking on the side of the goddamn road. . . .”
“He didn’t lie to you, Eljay. Just he didn’t tell you all his business.”
“Angel Child” is a skillful dissection, chapter and verse, of this country’s pernicious racial disease. Although we may tell ourselves it is all but contained, it continues to undergo strange and unsettling mutations, like that other most lethal of our viruses. The parallel touch of Mrs. Fanshaw’s grotesque adoption of Gabriel throws yet another uncanny light on the uneasy-but-equal tracks laid down by racism in America. But Steadman captures much of the way with forgiving grace and uncommon agility. In the last analysis, his deviously ironic wit allows us to confront the pain of recognition.