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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Bad Angel Brothers

Paul Theroux

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To purchase The Bad Angel Brothers

Title: The Bad Angel Brothers
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 342 pages
Availability: The Bad Angel Brothers - US
The Bad Angel Brothers - UK
The Bad Angel Brothers - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : entertainingly sour, with all the usual Theroux-elements

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/9/2022 Andrew Ervin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Honestly, I grew tired of hearing Cal whine. Literary characters don’t need to be likable, of course, but they do need to be fascinating. That said, I didn’t fully loathe Cal’s white savior act until he returns to an emerald mine he co-owns in Zambia and ogles a village woman while she’s balancing laundry on her head. (...) Theroux is at his masterly best when slowly raising the tensions and resentments and pushing Cal toward the homicidal rage we know to expect. While the eviscerating denouement of The Bad Angel Brothers might make us question some of the red-herring narrative choices that come before it, Cal’s ultimate decisions feel both shocking and inevitable." - Andrew Ervin, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The 'Bad Angel brothers' of the title are Pascal and Frank Belanger, 'Bad Angels' a schoolyard deformation of their family name that stuck. Pascal -- generally called 'Cal' --, who narrates the novel, also has a childhood nickname, but it's one that only his brother and their widowed mother still use: 'Fidge', so-called because he had been: "a restless, fidgeting youth". He remains restless, in a way typical of many a Theroux protagonist, becoming a geologist -- "a rock hunter, and an adventurer in the extractive industries", allowing him to spend months at a time in distant countrysides, from the American West to Colombia and Zambia. He escaped hometown Littleford -- where Frank remained, becoming a successful local lawyer -- but remained tied and then anchored to it, first by agreeing to buy his mother's house (while she continued to live in it), and then, when he married, settling his family there.
       The Bad Angel Brothers is presented in four parts, with the first and last essentially short opening and closing sections. Cal begins his story in the present-day, when he is in his mid-fifties. His wife, Vita, and then Frank himself have been nudging him to have lunch with his brother, and eventually he does -- not once, but twice, in fairly quick succession. Frank proves unable to get to a, or the, point either time, but it begins to dawn on Cal -- and becomes pretty clear when Vita says, soon afterwards: "I need to tell you something".
       We don't learn exactly what the situation is, but it seems clear where things are headed. Cal closes this short opening section:

I guessed there was much more to know and wondered whether I'd find out what it was. And why, in the end, I wanted him dead.
     But I have to go back to the beginning, in Littleford, when it was just the two of us.
       The long second section then does go back to the beginning, as Cal traces his -- and their -- history from childhood on before finally returning to the point he started from.
       As Cal admits not too far into this exercise of dredging up the past: "It's very hard, writing this, excavating our brotherhood, for me to be impartial about Frank, whom I found unbearable". Cal presents him as an inveterate liar, appropriating stories -- often Cal's: "It was as though he had begun to inhabit my life, making my experiences his own" -- and making himself look like the good guy. He's capable of ingratiating himself -- not least with acts of apparent generosity -- but it's all part of his game, building up a reputation and law practice. As Cal puts it:
He knew how to be generous and tender, he was able to touch a nerve and evoke a need, to inspire confidences, to be the soul of kindness. That was his most Luciferian trait.
       But Frank only really cares about himself. It's not just a matter of coming out on top or cashing in; Frank seems to revel in the game -- in pulling one over on people, whether it is necessary or not. And, adept at his profession, he does so perfectly legally. He contorts himself in manipulations, a slippery character that Cal can see through but, to his frustration, barely anyone else seems to be able to (including, then, Vita). And it's their very intimacy, that family bond, knowing each other so well, having grown up together, that makes Frank such a hard character for Cal to deal with -- even as he recognizes: "Brotherhood made him my enemy".
       Early on, flush with his first success, Cal is talked into putting his name on the title deed for his mother's house, in exchange for his taking over the expenses, his mother essentially bequeathing the house to him in advance. It's a good deal on its face -- but Frank wants to make it a better one: by co-signing the deed: "That makes me your insurance. In case something goes wrong". He won't be an active owner (even though he's living in the house at the time ...), assuring his foolish younger brother when the latter points out:
     "But you'd be half owner," I said.
     "In name only," he said. "When the right time comes, I'll take my name off the deed. You'll be the sole owner then."
       Cal lets himself be browbeat and agrees, without consulting a lawyer (or really thinking it through ....), and it comes as no surprise that eventually this will be an issue, as, of course "something goes wrong" (albeit very differently than Frank has been suggesting it might back then).
       The novel takes its time getting there, however, as Theroux has Cal lead us along some of the far-flung stations of his life first. Already early on the prospector certainly enjoys being successful at what he does -- but more for the independence it affords him than any kind of greed: "The quest mattered more to me than a great strike". He gets around, and he's happy in his: "solitude and remoteness" -- and, as always Theroux is very good at evoking this life so apart from the everyday, and the associated locales.
       But Cal does fall in loves with Vita, and they settle down in Littleford. Or rather, they buy a house there, and Vita settles down there -- quite happily -- while Cal comes and goes, often away for months at a time prospecting. They have a son, Gabe, and Vita finds something she is passionate about as well -- helped all the while by Frank, who is, after all, always nearby. Cal warns her about accepting this help, knowing: "nothing with Frank was pro bono. Somehow he always found a way of collecting", but Vita isn't swayed.
       As readers will have suspected in the first pages, at the end of the novel's first part, when he has reached his mid-fifties, Cal finds his marriage has collapsed. Vita divorces him -- and, thanks, no doubt, to Frank's advice, takes Cal to the cleaners. At least he has mom's house left in his name -- half, at least ... -- but even that soon proves to be a millstone. Cal has been screwed -- and even then Frank seems to manage to tighten the screws .....
       Early on while prospecting in Arizona Cal came across what he first believed to be a dead man. The man turned out to be alive, and Cal saved his life, bringing him back to his family in Phoenix, the Zorrillas -- clearly somehow involved in the drug trade. The man, Carlos, also has brother issues, as it was his brother that left him to die in the desert; grateful for Cal's help they promise him: "if you need help, know this -- you will always be under the protection of la familia Zorrilla".
       Cal, of course, winds up needing a lot of help, but finds it hard to latch onto any -- not least when he seeks out legal assistance, when his son Gabe who has become a lawyer (under Frank's wing ...) refers him to a partner in the firm he works at; Cal really fares poorly when dealing with anyone in the legal profession. The Zorrillas' offer dangles temptingly for the taking, and it seems only a matter of time before Cal turns to them, but he certainly does bide his time, miring himself ever-deeper in the misery Frank has so cleverly -- and true-to-character -- orchestrated. (This wallowing in misery, too, is familiar Theroux territory -- and pulled off quite as convincingly awful as usual.)
       Getting only Cal's side of the story, there's the inevitable question of just how reliable a narrator Cal is, but both Frank's warped deviousness and Cal's own inability to stake his domestic claims back in Littleford -- leaving Vita and son Gabe to be swayed by Frank, while Cal is far afield -- seem convincing. The resolution then is a bit odd -- a failure of the imagination, in a way, though arguably more realistic in how it plays out than what readers might have come to expect from the usual polished revenge-fantasy story. And at least Cal does get what he deserves.
       It can feel like a rather long, roundabout way to go, complete then with an abrupt ending, but it is an engaging ramble. As obsessive as Cal is, by making Frank so elusive -- he's good at avoidance, too -- and with Cal experiencing a good deal apart from him the book has a considerable amount of variety. It is, in a away, a single-minded rant -- but like the best ranters (say, a Thomas Bernhard), Theroux also presents something much richer.
       With its mix of the grim and the ebullient, very varied locales, and loner-tending protagonist, The Bad Angel Brothers is, for better and worse, practically a typical Theroux novel. The sourness won't be to everyone's taste, but it's a solid and enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 September 2022

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The Bad Angel Brothers: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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