Think of the most complicated and intriguing people you have ever met. Think of the way it feels to return to those people again and again, each time finding some new facet of truth, beauty, insight, originality. Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel” is a story like one of those people. First published in the New Yorker in 1988, the story later grew into Cunningham’s 1990 novel and the 2004 movie, A Home at the End of the World.
Shortly after its publication, the actor James Naughton stood and read the story aloud in front of an audience at Symphony Space in New York City for Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts program. On Tuesday, Selected Shorts was kind enough to share audio of the event with readers at Electric Literature in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Naughton’s live reading, alongside Kyle McCarthy’s recent interview with Naughton and Cunningham on their memory of the experience as well as their different modes of storytelling.
What stands out this time, listening to Naughton’s halting, raw reading of this tale of two brothers? The way that childhood stories from the ’60s for children who grew up in the ’80s can feel almost as tangible as our own childhood for all the Baby Boomer nostalgia and cautionary retellings our parents’ generation placed in front of us—think Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years and the oldies radio station playing in the kitchen. Also striking is the story’s almost Dickensian opening and the elements of fairy tale, such as the soft white blanket of snow that covers the ground in much of “White Angel.” Try the beginning below, or hit play and let Naughton take you through the story:
We lived then in Cleveland, in the middle of everything. It was the sixties—our radios sang out love all day long. This of course is history. It happened before the city of Cleveland went broke, before its river caught fire. We were four. My mother and father, Carlton, and me. Carlton turned sixteen the year I turned nine. Between us were several brothers and sisters, weak flames quenched in our mother’s womb. We are not a fruitful or many-branched line. Our family name is Morrow.
Despite its title and the tangy humor supplied mostly by Carlton and our narrator Bobby, we are in a dark world from the very beginning. There is a knowing hum running throughout this story of darkness to come, of darkness within. In fact, in the story’s third paragraph, Cunningham tells us the “after” which awaits the Morrows and why our narrator can’t stop telling this story, which is, in the end, a confession: “Here is Carlton several months before his death, in an hour so alive with snow that earth and sky are identically white.”
And just like that the brothers have taken their acid at breakfast, and as readers we go with them on the trip, hunting for the colors and contrast against that white snow, those dark times. Like a fairy tale, it is the red we will remember—the boys’ queen mother first at the sink, scrubbing an apple with a brush to rid it of the toxins she believes are within, and later, at the story’s ultimate party/ball “wearing a long dark-red dress that doesn’t interfere with her shoulders.” Finally, it is the darkening crimson sacrificial blood of Carlton we know must come for the way we have fully given ourselves over to Bobby’s achingly grooved retelling.
All of which is to say, damn, this is a good story—whether you’re reading it for the first or the fiftieth time.
For those of us wounded and worried over Tuesday’s election results, Hobart has a quick and handy palate cleanser up this week. They call it: “Plotlines from TV’s The Sopranos Reinterpreted by Lydia Davis.” In truth, it’s also been siphoned through another filter whose name is Christian Hayden. The results are delightful—something like a more intellectual mash-up of “If They Mated” by Conan O’Brien.