Charles Rammelkamp Review of
This Angel on My
Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk

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This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Cover of This Angel on My Chest“This Angel on My Chest”
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
$24.95, 224 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8229-4442-3

How does one deal with the sudden loss of a spouse at a young age?  If you’re a writer, chances are you write about it.  As Louise, the protagonist’s bitchy rival in the story ”One True Thing” says to Vanessa, whose husband recently died, “I suppose you’ll be writing about this one day.  That’s what we do as writers, isn’t it, write about all the bad things that happen to us?” 

Winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the sixteen stories in Leslie Pietrzyk’s collection, This Angel on My Chest, read almost like a novel as they look at the event from the survivor’s point of view in a multiplicity of voices and in a variety of story structures.  The tone of the stories moves from raw grief that’s almost painful to read, through ironic and even comic distance to, at the very end, in the story “Present Tense,” a kind of acceptance of the evanescence of life, of change. 

On the faculty of a number of prestigious writing programs, Pietrzyk places many of these stories either in a classroom/workshop setting and/or presents them in the form of “exercises” or “assignments” (“A Quiz” is an example), and she mixes up the voices from first- to second- to third-person in a dazzling display of narrative versatility like an ace pitcher mixing her fastballs, curves and knuckleballs.  At stake each time, of course, is “the story,” and “the story” in this book collides again and again with “the truth.”

The real tour-de-force story (now there’s a writing seminar concept for you, a “tour de force”) is called “One True Thing” and takes place at a writer’s retreat in New England, nine weeks after the protagonist’s husband’s sudden death.  Pietrzyk begins this story as a craft lecture: “Good morning.  Today I’ll be speaking about point of view.”  She then proceeds to tell the story from at least half a dozen different perspectives: “collective first person,” “third person limited,” “omniscient,” etc., all involving the interactions of a group of writers, who had likewise known Vanessa’s dead husband Michael.

“Truth-Telling for Adults” is likewise set in a classroom, though this is an adult-ed program whose full title is “Tell It Slant: Memoir and Truth-Telling for Adults.” Jinx, the teacher, encourages the students to distinguish between “honesty” and “truth.”

“Do You Believe in Ghosts?” takes another slant on the act of story-telling.  It starts:  “Let’s stop by the bar I always think of as Schultz’s.…”  The story of the husband’s death is thus told in the ancient confessional of a darkened bar.  “I’m rambling,” the narrator interrupts herself.  “It’s going to be that kind of story….”

“Tell it slant,” of course, is the famous dictum from Emily Dickinson – “Tell all the truth but tell it slant  -- / Success in Circuit lies….”  And as Pietrzyk’s characters emphasize again and again, “truth” is elusive and ultimately we have just the story or the attempt at honesty – another way of putting it.  These stories change the “slant” over and over each time.

It’s been close to two decades since Pietrzyk’s husband died from a sudden heart attack at the age of thirty-seven; she was thirty-five.  The guilt and the grief are painfully evident in these stories  -- the widows in these stories are almost invariably recent widows – but in the sheer re-telling of the story, over time, the immediacy of the hurt gets diluted, refracted, changed.  These stories were written over a period of at least ten to fifteen years so obviously Pietrzyk’s own perspective has changed, deepened.  At the end of “The Circle,” a story about a support group for young widows, a new person joins the circle, her husband having just recently died.  The naked grief she is experiencing suddenly seems so foreign to the veterans, grieving though they still are.  “Time has been at work already.  Scab is an ugly word, as is scar, so Ruth uses sediment, evoking layers, evoking rock formations, evoking the forward inevitability of time.”  So time, too, must be factored in to the “truth,” the “story.”

Thus, in the end, we’re just left with the fact that the man died, the wife survived.  So it’s not surprising that ghosts should turn up time and time again in these stories, a haunt, a reminder, a manifestation of the grief and the guilt.  In the story already mentioned, D.H., the husband who dies, tells the narrator, “If I ever die, my ghost will come back to find you.” Boy, was that ever the truth.  In this same story we encounter the source of the book’s title – a line from a Bruce Springsteen song about betrayal called “Backstreets.”  What is an angel but a ghost, eh?  “In a Dream” recounts a trip the couple made to Nogales, Mexico, but just the title evokes ghosts.  Ghosts recur in “One True Thing” and elsewhere. 

This Angel on My Chest is a really impressive piece of work, viewing a core event as through a prism, an ingenious concept for a book and fully deserving of any prize out there that recognizes literary brilliance.  If I have any criticism at all, it’s that the book is a little too tour-de-force-y.  Stories like “What I Could Buy” and “”Chapter Ten: an Index of Food (Draft)” seem too clever, written in service of the general theme.  If it weren’t for the bedrock existential seriousness of the subject, one might accuse Pietrzyk of being too clever at times in trying to balance irony and sincerity.  But in the end I think she pulls it off.  This is serious work.