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Adrian's angels: with humor and empathy, writer Chris Adrian creates a weird, wild world.

Grade-school nuns introduced Chris Adrian to his first angels. "They were there to be your friend when nobody else would be your friend," he said, "and on the other hand, they were there to tell on you to somebody, possibly even Sister Frances."

By the time he was in college, with plenty of distance between him and Sr. Frances, his Catholicism had cooled and his angels had drifted away.

Then, when he was 22, his brother died. For the next decade, his angels watched from afar, waiting patiently while Adrian worked through version after version of his first novel, Gob's Grief, about a Civil War-era attempt to invent a resurrection machine. He wrote hoping to exorcise the pain of his brother's death. "I didn't feel any better when I finished, but I think something happened," he said. "I have a hard time quantifying or even qualifying it, but something changed and let me move on."

Writing whenever he managed to be awake (he had by now finished medical school and chosen a pediatric residency), he began a second novel, The Children's Hospital, about a group of doctors, nurses and children who survive after the rest of the world is destroyed. Suddenly gripped by the notion of four angels overseeing the Apocalypse, he pored over medieval theology and the Anchor book of Old Testament apocrypha. With a few strikes of the keyboard, he restored his angels' power.


They were different now, though. He dropped clear hints that they had led mortal lives before their transformation, and he gave them human vulnerabilities.

Adrian knew all about vulnerability.

The youngest of four kids, he grew up watching his parents joke, drink heavily and fight. His father was an airline pilot who was otherwise calm and steady; his mother a former flight attendant who now dabbled in real estate, and in the privacy of the home, "they clashed constantly. There was lots of drama. They threatened divorce a lot. As we got older, we would get all excited about The Divorce. They'd call us all together and announce their plans for a divorce--and then they just wouldn't talk about it anymore, and we'd be like, 'What happened to The Divorce?' Cause we thought it would mean they wouldn't fight anymore."

Last year Adrian, 37, was named to Esquire's list of the "Best and Brightest." His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker and McSweeney's, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux just published this July a collection titled A Better Angel. He's currently finishing a degree at Harvard Divinity School and working in the emergency room of Boston Children's Hospital, and this fall he begins a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center. "I want to end up doing pediatric oncology," he explained. "The divinity degree seemed like it would be a good fit because you can, if you want, do a lot of counseling, and in med school no one really teaches you how."

Divinity school hasn't been as much fun as he thought it would be, though, because his professors all want answers. Ask Adrian the big questions and his deep voice cracks in a heartfelt, blurted confession: "I don't know!" He's genuinely bemused by abstractions and the absolute certainty other people manage to imbue in their pronouncements. Life after death? No clue. "I used to have pretty definite ideas about it as a kid--that everyone who died was there, aunts and uncles and dogs, and they knew about terrible things I had done. Then my brother died, and I was not so sure what I believed anymore. And now I'm in my third year of divinity school and I'm still on the fence."

He refuses even to try to define virtue or sin, and as for theodicy, years of pediatric practice and theological study haven't explained how a loving God lets innocent people suffer. "I've never been able to answer that question satisfactorily," he said, voice tight. "But I do feel"--and here he relaxed--"like I've learned a lot just being in the privileged position of watching parents and kids go through horrible situations. The vast majority deal with it with an incredible amount of graciousness and grace. I feel like, if they are not giving up and becoming embittered, then I certainly have no right to do that. I'm only watching it. They're living it. And they still think the world's a good place and it's a good idea to get up in the morning."


Adrian calls his reluctance to philosophize "a defect" and said it's why he can't bring himself to write essays. (Too sure, too preachy.) He prefers fiction, in which he can raise the same theological questions with far more subtlety. He likes his work best when it's "an extended exercise in empathy," illustrating the world's faults and sufferings so clearly that it makes it hard for anyone to judge.

A Catholic sensibility--a physical, sensuous world lit with transcendent meaning and fraught with spiritual conflict--infuses his work. Yet the writer no longer calls himself Catholic.

"If I had to choose--and I guess at some point I'm supposed to--on my little Divinity School student profile card they haven't seemed to notice yet that I haven't put anything down--it's somewhere between Unitarianism and Congregationalist," he said in a rush. Then he added more slowly, "I have lots of different feelings about Catholicism. Sort of equal parts affection and anger. I thought about whether or not to stick around and decided I would find a better home someplace else. But I never found any place that seemed like home. I think that's one of the dangers of growing up Catholic. I never really found another place that was good enough or real enough. Having heard all my life how special Catholicism was, nothing could come close."

His stories are about loneliness, grotesques, kids so angry they're demonic, bizarre leaps of imagination and 100 forms of redemption. They're also funny, and they manage to inject everyday preoccupations like food, sex and friendship into bizarre and provocative frames of reference. In Adrian's work, nightmarish fears not only come true, they take on a quirky normality.

Asked what question he wishes reporters would ask him, he said, "I'd probably ask myself to describe failures. I think it's more interesting to hear about people's failures than their successes, and people tend not to ask about those."

OK ...?

"Well, I'm writing a kids' book I have been trying to get to make sense for a long time. It came together in one draft, but it scared every kids' publisher who saw it. The common refrain was, 'What makes you think this is appropriate for children?'"

So what's the plot?

"A little girl who makes a deal with the devil to get into this alternate world to save a little boy. If she succeeds, the devil will reunite her with her mother."

And what's the downside--has the little girl sold her soul?

"No downside. She just doesn't know he's the devil, and in doing this she sets herself against the conventional authorities in heaven, who are not necessarily the good guys."

You can't read Chris Adrian with any preconceptions. A physician to the core, he is immersed in the human body, yet his work is driven by pure spirit. His angels aren't entirely benign, and his doctors are not gods; in fact they're often frighteningly inept. (He says he writes "caricatures of my own incompetence"; what he means is his abiding fear of being incompetent.) Children are not innocent, they're angry. One drinks blood; another kills small furry animals. You recoil, and then you find out, say, that the little girl is trying to kill her way back to her parents, who died in a car accident, and you feel yourself forgiving her and redefining innocence in the process.

Adrian draws empathy from us as surely as technicians draw blood. It's because he doesn't flinch at ugliness, pus, death, weirdness or wildness. He stays near, watching gently.

Patient as an angel.

[Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.]
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Title Annotation:Opinion & ARTS
Author:Cooperman, Jeannette
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 25, 2008
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