“Stay God, Sweet Angel” begins with a stabbing. It’s a metaphorical attack—the victim is the sun—but it introduces an atmosphere of menace that hangs over the nearly 350 pages of Baltimore writer Nik Korpon’s two-part neo-noir novel.
That’s a long time to spend inside the angst-and-cocaine-riddled head of Korpon’s protagonist, Damon—an amoral, failed artist with a troubled past who deals drugs out of his Fells Point pawnshop. And it underscores the dilemma shared by many anti-heroic narratives: Since it’s so hard to care about people like this, why keep reading?
The answer in this case is the quality of the writing. “Stay God, Sweet Angel” is a genre novel with literary aspirations, and for the most part, Korpon credibly straddles that line. His vivid descriptions and luminous metaphors (a woman’s pants are “painted on by a brush dipped in shadows”) reveal a skilled wordsmith. 'Stay God,' the longer, darker, and more compelling of the novel’s two sections, also demonstrates Korpon’s talent for narrative structure, as past and present race toward each other and an inevitably horrific climax.
Korpon’s attempts at character development are less successful. As is often the case in genre fiction, characters risk sliding into caricature. We learn little about their motivations, desires, or (surprisingly, given Korpon’s descriptive powers) even their looks. Too often, they feel like mere devices to propel Damon along on his path toward self-annihilation. This tendency produces characters who sometimes seem to be doing imitations of the criminals, addicts, and assorted lowlifes whose world the novel wants to portray—a reductionism that reaches its pinnacle in a pair of nearly interchangeable drug thugs who are referred to simply as “The Twins.”
It doesn’t help that Korpon’s dialogue is sometimes stilted, especially in the exchanges between Damon and his girlfriend, Mary (Would anyone actually scold her lover by saying, “I knew someone who wanted to make beautiful things once upon a time”?). More believable are Damon's conversations with Isabela, the mysterious “Scarlet Lady” who seems to have wandered into his life straight out of a 1940s noir novel.
A more interesting “character” than most of the inhabitants of this novel is Baltimore itself—or rather, the tiny slice of it populated by Korpon’s gallery of rogues, most of whom seem never to venture beyond a few blocks in Fells Point. Korpon's Mobtown is a far cry from, say, Anne Tyler’s gently quirky view of Charm City centered in tiny Roland Park. It’s a bit closer to, but still a great distance from, the slightly sinister but lovably Runyonesque Baltimore conjured by Laura Lippman’s crime novels.
There is nothing lovable or appealing about the place as Korpon envisions it; the city as depicted in 'Stay God' (the 'Sweet Angel' section is set some years earlier in Northampton, Western Massachusetts) is a shattered, decaying wreck. This authentically distills Damon’s mental state, and it is true enough to the spirit of noir—Hammett doesn’t dwell on San Francisco’s enchantments in "The Maltese Falcon," does he?—but locals who still hate “The Wire” for emphasizing Baltimore’s bleak side will not be pleased. Though they will no doubt enjoy Korpon’s sprinkling of actual Baltimore places throughout the narrative.
“Stay God, Sweet Angel” also shines in its descriptions of the sensory world. Inside Damon's head, one sees, tastes, feels, and smells things intensely—rain on a storefront window, for example, becomes “a thousand sodium-yellow bugs.” Korpon renders sensations brought on by pain and/or addiction in especially sharp relief: “my cells lined up in their capillaries with paper party hats and kazoos, aching for their first blast of the day.” Damon’s drug-addicted friend is compared, devastatingly, to “a vinyl record, only working when there’s a needle in him.”
Every human interaction in Damon’s life is a transaction at best, and a threat at worst. The language of violence and death is ubiquitous: Keys “stab” at locks, the sky “spits” rain, night “bleeds” into the sky. Even tissue paper is “exhumed” from a purse. And the natural world offers no solace: As in Baudelaire, it serves only as a metaphor for what is diseased and corrupted. “Junkies sprouted in alleys … Prostitutes blossomed from latex tube tops like decaying orchids.”
Korpon also has a sharp eye for minor details and the rhythms of life, such as streetlights that flicker on “like old movie projectors.” As that simile suggests, this is a highly cinematic book, and not just because Damon and his friend Christian spout a constant stream of movie and TV references. Korpon is obviously a movie buff, and he uses language to conjure filmlike images and situations. He is as much a student of Quentin Tarantino as he is of Raymond Chandler.
In fact, Damon sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between his own life and the world of movies. A victim of neglectful parenting, bad luck, addiction, and various poor choices, he has plenty to escape from.
Like a million literary protagonists before him, Damon struggles with the problem of identity—a struggle amplified by the fact that he is living under an assumed name, running a front business, and lying to almost everyone about his past. His view of himself as an intellectual, romantic figure conflicts sharply with who he really is: an embittered cynic with a frustrated girlfriend; a man pushing 30 whose mind is a swirl of narcotics and pop-culture trivia; a former artist who channels his creativity into clever packaging for drugs. Though he disdains the dope fiends he supplies, he is not superior to them in any meaningful way.
At one point, Damon tells the reader, “No one was ever who they were, and you weren’t supposed to know who anyone else was. . . . And every action wasn’t what it was.” He’s talking about the necessary secrecy of the drug trade, but the subtext is clear: We seek protection by hiding from each other, and from ourselves, until, as in one of Damon’s beloved zombie movies, that which lies hidden finally emerges from the shadows.
Damon paraphrases schlockmeister George Romero, saying, “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk Fells Point.” The dead might not rise again in Baltimore, but as Korpon reminds us, they refuse to rest easily.