By Chris Adrian
240 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Spirits and demons and a persistent faith populate Chris Adrian's crystalline stories in A Better Angel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The title is taken from one story in particular—emotionally daring, as almost all these stories are—where an angel plays a significant role. At the same time, the phrase evokes Lincoln's famous line, which he used to close his first inaugural address in March 1861, appealing to the nation to remain whole: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Two years later he would speak at Gettysburg, where 40,000 men were maimed and slaughtered in three days. Thus the title is doubly accurate, because this same haunting dichotomy of intention and reality can be found at work in almost all of Adrian's tales: a woman befriends a boy, inappropriately, it turns out, and he manages to wreck her car; a girl tries to speak to the spirit of her dead father and ends up contacting the devil instead.... That's how it is in Adrian's lyrical kingdom, where most attempts at intimacy, friendship, and love become something more dark, complex, and spiritually wrenching.