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Originally published Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"A Better Angel": There's something catchy in this soul-stirring collection

"A Better Angel," Chris Adrian's new collection of short stories, proves that suffering doesn't have to break the soul.

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Better Angel"

by Chris Adrian

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 227 pp., $23

The new collection of short stories by Boston novelist Chris Adrian ("The Children's Hospital") reads like the off-kilter tales of a mad man who sits next to you in the waiting area of a hospital emergency room insisting the world's about to end. His creepy accounts of profound illness, violent aggression, strange visions and hovering doom resonate, and you wind up thinking of them for days afterward. In Adrian's case, we're dealing with a great mind, not a lost one.

The material in "A Better Angel" is close to Adrian's heart, drawn from his background as a pediatrician and divinity school student. Each deals in one way or another with the sometimes uneasy alliance of body and soul, nature and the supernatural.

In "The Vision of Peter Damien," set in what seems to be the 19th century, a boy who never gets sick suddenly is stricken with feverish delusions of planes flying into towers and angels dropping from the sky, an obvious yet darkly imaginative take on the Sept. 11 attacks.

"He felt suspended in the thick transparent air, floaty and full of moonlight," Adrian writes of Peter's first fever.

Mining folk medicine for all it's worth, Adrian has fun exploring the possible diagnoses.

"It might be the orange glanders," Peter's mother says. "Or the willow fever. Or the early early dropsy."

Maybe it's "the creaky doom," his pesky brother offers.

His fever visions become contagious, and his mother and doctor propose all sorts of kooky poultices to heal what, evidently, is a spiritual rather than medical condition, which the boy himself may hold the cure for.

This is a book full of "sad spirits," to borrow an expression from a character in "The Changeling" — in the form of the living, the dead and people stuck between the two.

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"The Sum of Our Parts" takes us on a guided psychological tour of a hospital medical staff led by the soul of Beatrice, a suicidal woman who is in a coma and in need of a liver transplant after jumping off a parking garage. She hovers over the employees, reading the snarky and often sexual thoughts they have about each other, only to find that over the weeks, one of the lab technicians has formed a crush on her comatose, physical self. Talk about doomed love.

Coupling with the unfathomable sadness and grief on display in "A Better Angel" is a curious brand of humor, as evidenced in "Stab." A small, country-club community experiences a rash of animal stabbings during the holidays that escalates to household pets and soon to Santa. But the villagers are stupidly blind to the possibility that one of their own is sick enough to do such things. A little boy — it's often a boy who bears the weight of total awareness and conscience in this collection, and females who are the cheeky instigators of mischief — knows the secret.

The title story, "A Better Angel," explores the love-hate bond between a doctor who's watching his father die of a terminal illness and a priggish guardian angel who's followed him since childhood. She thinks he can do more with his healing ways. He's not so sure. "If I were a tree surgeon or a schoolteacher or a truffle-snuffler, or even a plain old junkie, then sickness would just be sickness, just something to be borne and not something I was supposed to be able to defeat," he says.

Adrian proves that suffering, your own or others', doesn't have to break the soul. There's also the promise, if we're ready to see the light, of revelation.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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