When Angels Sing: A Christmas Story
Reviewed by Clay Smith, Fri., Nov. 26, 1999
When Angels Sing: A Christmas Storyby Turk Pipkin
Algonquin Books, 111 pp., $14.95
Michael Walker, the narrator of Turk Pipkin's sweet and meaningful When Angels Sing: A Christmas Story, realizes that he has become "quite a faker" when it comes to all that stuff about Christmas joy; he does not like eggnog and his churlish recompense for your holiday cheer is a hearty "Bah humbug!" Christmas, for him, means that memories of a family tragedy are brought home, once again, with painful immediacy. One year, when they both were children, Michael and his older, beloved brother David went ice skating during the annual family trek from San Antonio to New Mexico to visit grandparents. On thin ice, the boys slipped into the water, but David was able to save Michael's life before he himself died. Michael blames himself for his brother's death. He has gone on living out his days despite David's death, but his inability to move on from the tragedy is beginning to poison the life of his family (his wife and two children) and, it seems, everyone around him.
Michael's emotional malaise is compounded by the fact that his father -- he goes by "Colonel," for his long and illustrious miliary career -- still thinks of David as the favorite son, even though he's dead. Michael's oldest child is also named David, and traits of his namesake uncle begin to appear in the child in quite an eerie way. He sings Christmas carols just as beautifully, and he's smart and kind and he loves Christmas. That's not enough, apparently, to turn Michael around. Everyone is just getting by, in fact, until one day Michael decides to get off the freeway and, in a sort of daze, heads toward Wonderland Avenue, where he finds a splendid, roomy house up for sale that oddly enough is being sold by the owner, "Nick," who has a white beard and rosy cheeks, at the top asking price Michael and his wife decided they could afford for a new house. Michael buys it without consulting his family, but they move in and love it there. Wonderland Avenue has a famous festival of lights every Christmas, but Michael has no intention of letting his family participate. Soon enough, the Walker family Christmas tragedy repeats itself, but there are positive, as well as negative, consequences, and that's a step up from the previous Walker family Christmas tragedy.
Everyone agrees, I think, that the subject matter of a story should not exempt it from a critical reading. It must be said, at the risk of seeming a Scrooge, that this Christmas story is stiff and unwieldy. The language tends to be unneccesarily ornate. Michael refers to his Christmas tragedies as "the unspeakable Christmas curse that has taken residence in my heart and refuses to be dislodged." Earlier, when Michael and his brother are singing Christmas carols for the family, "the snow was falling all around us and the air was cold, but in my mind the frosty breaths that sprang from our breasts that night would forever warm the circle of our gathered clan." Perhaps, by this grandiloquent approach, the author means to echo the gravitas of revered Christmas literature like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but here the tone tends to stultify, not bestow import; that kind of talk is dead on arrival. In addition, the depiction of both Davids is too schematic; they consist of only good intentions and are so wise beyond their years that they're inaccessible. Of course, they're the angels in this story, but angels, to do any good, must first seem human. "If you believe it, it is true," Michael realizes toward the end of the story. The shame is that we could have believed it, too, if the writing and the angels hadn't gotten in the way.
Turk Pipkin will be at Barnes & Noble Arboretum on Saturday, November 28 from 4-6pm.