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Dirty Little Angels Reviewed in The Advocate

The heroine of this novel, Hailey Trosclair, is a 16-year-old girl going on 25. She lives in pre-Katrina New Orleans and hangs with a group that includes her brother Cyrus, her surgically enhanced friend Meridian, Meridian’s boyfriend Chase, and Moses, a charismatic ex-con who is trying to establish a church in an abandoned drive-thru bank.

Hailey’s parents are a mess. Her mom has suffered a miscarriage recently and has been bedridden for six months. Her father “had worked down at the meat packing company on Julia Street as an Assistant Supervisor, that is, until last December, when he’d gotten laid off. For the last few months, he’d been collecting unemployment checks. He spent most days down at Spider’s Pool Hall nursing cocktails or at the Fair Grounds betting on horses.” The family is financially stressed and the mortgage is way behind. Hailey’s father can’t manage to be interested in a job search or anything else, but he has mustered up enough energy to acquire a mistress.

Like many urban teens, Hailey and Cyrus are balanced on a slippery slope. Their parents say one thing, but do another. Authority figures offer good advice. Friends offer good times. The fun factor is hard to resist, and it’s already gotten Cyrus into some trouble.

“Cyrus had been arrested three times, once for stealing chrome rims from a warehouse in New Orleans East, then another time for snatching car stereos from the parking lot of at the gun show. This time, he’d got caught selling a quarter bag of weed to a boy over on Almonaster Street.”

With her friends pointing the way, Hailey sees sex and drugs and violence and decay all around her. They hang out at a site on Jefferson Highway where there is a cluster of abandoned warehouses the kids call “The Dead Goat.”

“At some point the owners had left it to rot, and over the years people had started dumping trash there. The whole area was littered with gutted cars, piles of junked boards, clumps of concrete and drywall, even the rusted skeletons of old washing machines and refrigerators. Originally, the area had been called Cold Storage Road, but people started calling it The Dead Goat after the police got a call one Halloween that a group of Satan worshipers had done a sacrifice there. Rumor had it, the police found a pentagram of gasoline burning in one of the warehouses and a dead goat dangling from a telephone pole. The goat had been gutted, and its eyes had been plucked out.”

There’s no mistaking that The Dead Goat is a metaphor for a certain part of New Orleans, the not-Uptown part. Tusa, who teaches at LSU, is a New Orleans native. He does a very good job of evoking this down-on-their-luck subculture that populates the sinking remains of once-prosperous New Orleans neighborhoods.

The focus of Tusa’s novel is not sociological, however, it’s personal.

This is Hailey’s story, and it is written in her voice. What emerges is a beautiful young girl who is confused and trying to sort out the mixed signals she gets from her friends, her parents, her boyfriends, the society she lives in. She is, in short, a typical teen.

What sets Hailey apart — and her brother — is one night’s ill-considered actions taken under the influence of the malevolent prophet Moses. The novel tracks the repercussions of those actions and Hailey’s other choices to a shattering conclusion. Tusa’s novel is short, just 147 pages, but it tells more about New Orleans and the young people struggling to grow up there than many books of much greater length. Before you give your summer entirely over to wizards and dragons and gods of fantasy, pick up Dirty Little Angels, read it and experience the jolt that literary realism can pack. “ »Greg Langley, The Baton Rouge Advocate

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