Book review: 'In the Company of Angels' by Thomas E. Kennedy

According to recent surveys, the Danes, with their socialist monarchy, carpe diem atheism and boisterous birth rates, are the happiest people on the planet. Just don't try telling this to Thomas E. Kennedy. His ensnaring, original novel, "In the Company of Angels," looks into the hearts of four ordinary yet emotionally tortured Copenhageners — and confronts them with Nardo, a refugee from Chile whose courage in the face of physical torture points up the lies in their lives.

Kennedy scrutinizes Danish experience the way only an expat son can view his adopted country. Originally from New York, he has lived in Denmark for more than 20 years and published seven novels to a mainly European audience. "In the Company of Angels" is the first of his Copenhagen Quartet; the other three, to be published soon by Bloomsbury, are apparently written in quite different modes.

Volume 1 could practically serve as a walking guide to the parks, statues and history of the capital; only life on bicycles and the light off the canals are oddly left out of the picture. Still the food is burpy, the beer a national treasure, and the dreary, ever-disappointing Danish weather — the action takes place during a summer canceled by glacial rain — is a character in itself, manipulating moods, plans and fateful encounters.

In a state therapy program for torture victims, Nardo meets with Dr. Kristensen, whose by-the-book therapeutic goal is to "go back … to take the armor off … before it crushes you." Challenged by this tight-lipped, mistrustful patient, the outwardly calm Kristensen fumes and wavers. Worse, he feels his mind invaded by the evil presence of Pinochet's torturers, to the extent that terrifying fantasies visit him when cozy with his wife and children in their idyllic garden house.

Meanwhile Nardo can't shake the image of Michela, she of the "eyes like blue fire" glimpsed in passing and instantly adored. Michela herself is a victim-survivor, and not only of her ex-husband's assaults. We follow her on her rounds of tending parents in a "home" (father: cancer, mother: Alzheimer's), fretting over her wrinkles, and having luxurious sex with Voss, one of Denmark's "vital young men with good teeth," whose devastating shallowness can't protect him from his demons, especially the liquid kind.

Kennedy doesn't heap on the misery in order (or not only) to create a compelling psycho-melodrama. He is serious about wanting to get at — dig down to — what it is that makes people do unspeakable things. Are torturers evil or average? If average, what drives them beyond common decency? Fear and desperation? Power and the sensuality of pain? Nietzschean social logic? These are the kinds of questions famously posed and answered by, for example, Hannah Arendt and by the Milgram experiment. And yet only fiction can drive them down to the naked root. Because the challenge is to make it real.

Kennedy has a gifted eye. Here is the drunken Voss watching Michela dance with a rival: "Then she lifted, and he spun her toward him so her dress twirled alluringly around and between her legs and the full front of her body met his." Ah, the very impact of jealousy. But other passages, over-sweet or over-earnest, veer toward camp. And if Nardo is a textbook hero defined mainly by his ordeal, Michela is equally purpose-built, a paragon of sensuality and generosity. Far and away the liveliest Dane in town is her father, a newspaperman in his day, who from his hospice bed delivers a dying writer's manifesto that is alone worth the price of admission.

"What's moral in fiction is chiefly its way of looking," said John Gardner, author of "On Moral Fiction." "Certainly morality should come first. Writers … should always ask, Is this moral? Not, Will it sell?" During decades in the literary backlands, Kennedy has held to his vision of what writing should want to do.

Ultimately, the story of Nardo's healing overreaches: for symbolic resonance, for answers, for closing scenes as enveloping as Dr. Kristensen's Arne Jacobsen wing chair. That said, caring about characters' fates makes a hands-down more engaging read than most of the desperately cool ego trips published these days. "In the Company of Angels" is simply an unforgettable novel. Its tongue is not tucked up safely in its cheek.

Maristed is the author of several novels, including "Broken Ground" and "Out After Dark."

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