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Head of a Sad Angel (1990): Last Will and Testament

Alfred Chester, Head of a Sad Angel: Stories 1953-1966, edited by Edward Field (Black Sparrow, 1990)

[originally posted 11Jul2001]

An artist's rendition of the head of a sad angel adorns the book's cover.

One of those rare books where the cover is just plain informative.
photo credit: Amacon

Alfred Chester is something along the lines of the godfather of what we now know as eighties literature. Warmer than Bukowski, more detached than Faulkner, closer to the point than Sherwood Anderson ever got, the novels pumped out thirty years later by such authors as Ellis and McInerney could have been tarred by the same brush, though Chester mixed a kind of hard-boiled romance with his stark realism. And yet, as Edward Field reminds us in his introduction to the book’s nonfiction appendix, Chester was almost totally forgotten by the time of his death in 1971, at the age of forty-three. The fact that an obscure, unknown, then-out-of-print writer could have still influenced a whole (albeit a bad) genre should tell us something: specifically, that Chester is possibly the most neglected important American writer of the twentieth century.

It seems to me that Chester became a forgotten writer as the stars of contemporaries such as Bukowski and Ferlinghetti were rising because Chester went the opposite way of such writers. What Buk et al. distilled from Faulkner was the no-nonsense prose, the ability to tell a tale in the elevated prose that marks poetry while keeping the work as readable as possible. This made Buk et al.’s work more accessible to the public, and thus it was ripe for mainstream consumption. Chester, on the other hand, wrote prose that’s as close to poetry as one is ever likely to find; rather than work on the accessibility factor, Chester shunned the idea and mined the simple power of words, leaving them elevated, but unpolished. As such, Chester’s stories often demand to be read at leisure, in small doses, and more often than not the writing is thick, many-layered, difficult; yet the reward is there. Chester was a profoundly good writer, and every story in this collection is a gem.

The second section of the book, comprising about seventy pages, is a series of reflections on Chester by those close to him during his descent into the madness that ultimately, though indirectly, caused his death. Such authors as Cynthia Ozick, Dennis Selby, Ira Cohen, and Robert Friend recount anything from one-page snatches of image to long essays on Chester’s life. There’s a lot of good material here (and it reinforces the autobiographical nature of Chester’s work), but it seems to me that Chster’s material could have stood on its own, and the biographical material would have made for a good anthology-style biography of Chester.

The previously-mentioned descent is all too obvious in Chester’s work. Early material is tight, ominous, less obtuse than the later work, and with more attention paid to craft. “As I Was Going Up the Stair” is a horror story in the grand old tradition, but with a sense of newness about it that still rings fresh today; like the best of today’s authors, Chester gives us not ghosts and ghouls, but the horrors of absence, of separation. This is stuff that should be in Norton Anthologies, without a doubt. In contrast, the fifty pages that have survived from Chester’s final manuscript, “The Foot,” show the contrast between the early, almost surreal prose of Chester’s early career and the loose, ultra-realistic, somewhat rambling feel of later pages. I do agree with Robert Friend (despite how that last sentence sounds) that “The Foot” may well be the best thing Chester ever wrote; it’s a perfect study in how to write a romance novel without a single drop of excess emotion. It is as beautiful, and as stark, as the cinematography in the film version of (Chester contemporary) Paul Bowles’ landmark novel The Sheltering Sky. It seems that the landscape of Bowles’ and Chester’s Tunisia—both were part of the early-sixties expatriate community in western Africa—may have influenced Chester’s writing more than even he knew.

This is very, very strong work, a piece of literary history America is in danger of losing, to its great detriment. Chester should be required reading for any short story writer. ****

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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