A Better Angel Stories

Chris Adrian




Trade Paperback

240 Pages



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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

The stories in A Better Angel describe the terrain of human suffering—illness, regret, mourning, sympathy—in the most unusual of ways. In “Stab,” a bereaved twin starts a friendship with a homicidal fifth grader in the hope that she can somehow lead him back to his dead brother. In “Why Antichrist?” a boy tries to contact the spirit of his dead father and finds himself talking to the Devil instead. In the title story, a ne’er do well pediatrician returns home to take care of his dying father, all the while under the scrutiny of an easily disappointed heavenly agent.

The stories in A Better Angel, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, and McSweeney’s, demonstrate more of Chris Adrian's endless inventiveness and wit, and they confirm his growing reputation as an unusual literary voice of darkly magical comic tales.


Praise for A Better Angel

“To read Chris Adrian is to take part in the exciting process of watching a talented and original writer gain mastery of his powerful gifts.”—Myla Goldberg, The New York Times Book Review

“Adrian's is a haunted, haunting territory of troubled spirits, where redemption is sought—and may, occasionally, be found . . . There are certainly strains of comedy in Adrian's darkness.”—Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times Book Review

“Mr. Adrian is a gifted, courageous writer, and with this collection he continues to take far-reaching risks.”—S. Kirk Walsh, The New York Times

“Adrian, himself a pediatrician and seminary student, is a lucid, brilliant fortune-teller. He unveils our demons, who, in the wake of their visitations upon these children, reveal something you can only call the face of God.”Tom Chiarella, Esquire

“Astonishing . . . [A] poisoned, unflinching redemption is held forward in the pared beauty of Adrian's unshowy, lambent prose and gives the collection almost a bottomless depth.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“His best work yet . . . Not one of the stories teeters out of control. They are strange, beautiful, and unforgettable. Like Kafka, Poe, and Salman Rushdie, Adrian knows the best way to bring the miraculous to life is to write it realistically.”—The Boston Globe

"In these stories Mr. Adrian paints beautiful still lifes of near-dead bodies among ghosts and angels, prompting questions about what lies beneath the body, the wax mannequin, or what lies beyond—beyond the modern scene of death, the dirty, fluorescent hospital."—Lily Swistel, The New York Observer

"Adrian's language is powered by unflinching detail (a dead man's open eyes have 'the look of spoiling grapes'), and he's at his best when in the sickroom, as in 'The Sum of Our Parts', in which a comatose soul trails the living around the hospital where her body lies dying. The title story, which combines dark comedy and deep pathos, is not only the standout of this volume but also one of the best stories published in recent memory. Adrian has been known as a writer's writer, but with this book, readers would do well to stake their claim."—Radhika Jones, Time

"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."—Tyrone Beason, The Seattle Times

"Drug-addled doctors, evil teenagers and winged spirits are among the characters in Chris Adrian’s new volume of eccentric and fabulistic stories, A Better Angel . . . Adrian admits that his work at the hospital often inspires his fiction, but he radically transforms events from his everyday experience, fitting them into a richly surreal framework . . . Like their creator, the characters in A Better Angel tend to channel their grim obsessions into transformative creativity: One, a teenager who’s spent much of her life in the hospital, is writing a book about diseased animals. When an incompetent intern asks, 'Do you think anyone would buy that?' she answers, 'There’s a book about shit. . . . Why not one about sickness and death?' This could be an epigraph for much of Adrian’s brutal yet beautiful world, where the sometimes horrifying realities of the body mingle with the pleasures of fantasy."—Elizabeth Isadora Gold, Time Out New York

"They are eternal questions with no easy answers—indeed, no universally agreed-upon answers at all. Why does evil exist? Why does God—if God exists—allow the innocent to suffer? Are there spirits emanating from some alternate universe that can instruct us, harangue us, punish us, save us? They are questions that a doctor or student of theology might ponder. Chris Adrian, who is both a pediatric oncologist and a student at Harvard Divinity School, has given them much thought, and because he is a writer of uncommon imagination and expressiveness, he presents them in original and gripping ways. Any of those callings might serve an ordinary seeker of truth, but Adrian is pursuing all three to find answers. Also the author of two novels, Gob's Grief and The Children's Hospital, he here offers nine short stories, linked by themes. Most involve children who are emotionally wounded or physically ill. Many hinge on the deaths of relatives and their lingering effect on surviving children. Some take place in hospitals. A few echo powerfully the horror of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. All are written in language so beautiful and compelling that we go willingly where Adrian takes us, despite the pain and terror and sheer weirdness of the stories . . . 'The Sum of Our Parts' is a love story, but the heroine is in love with death. In fact, she is a spirit hovering above her own body, irredeemably broken in a suicidal plunge from the roof of a parking garage. Unable to pass on to the next life, or to oblivion, she then falls in love with the hospital's phlebotomy staff, and Adrian makes this story tenderly amusing, lyrical and wryly instructive, all at once. A hospital also is the setting for 'A Child's Book of Sickness and Death,' a brilliantly written but highly disturbing account told by a teenager who must live on 'the sauce,' the intravenous nutrition solution that has kept her alive since her premature birth. She's in love with an incompetent intern and writing a book for kids about animals with horrible, invented diseases, like 'dreadful hoof dismay.' Her shockingly black-humored vignettes all end with little exclamations, such as 'Suffer, pony, suffer!' You will need to gird yourself to get through this one, but it is worth the angst. The Sept. 11-themed stories are among the book's best. 'The Vision of Peter Damien' is set in a village hundreds of years in the past, where teenage children are afflicted with fevers that bring roiling visions of burning towers and roaring entities flying through the skies that crash into them: angels, they think, not able to conceive of airplanes. This appalling foreknowledge is never fully explained, but Adrian's descriptiveness and evocation of village life are gorgeous and haunting. Likewise, his creation of the hectoring, hovering, shape-shifting winged creature in 'A Better Angel' is stunning and provocative. In 'The Changeling,' it is not angels but a hellish chorus of 9-11 victims who possess a little boy, or so his half-mad father believes. His sacrifice for his son is both gory and profoundly touching. In his last story, 'Why Antichrist?', a boy whose father has died and a girl whose father was killed in the towers unite in an unholy liaison that uses a Ouija board as the portal to alarming possibilities. The story ends on a note of triumph that is anything but reassuring. Adrian, of course, is not out to reassure, but to question and probe. That he can make his dark materials so illuminating and powerful is a testament to his immense talent."—Carole Goldberg, The Hartford Courant

"For any of us perennially aspiring writers—who just know we have a book in us, if we could only find the time—Chris Adrian is a terrible foil. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a pediatrician and a Harvard divinity student, Adrian has still found time to write two acclaimed novels and now one of the best story collections of the year. No slouch. It's hard not to mention Adrian's resumé, not just out of sheer amazement, but also for how deeply it has informed his writing. As with his second novel, The Children's Hospital, A Better Angel draws heavily on material from his day job, but what drives his work is something dealt with more acutely in theology than medicine. In ‘The Changeling,’ a mother explains the attacks of September 11 to her three-year-old son as an illustration of kairos, what theologian Paul Tillich describes as a 'point in history in which time is disturbed by eternity.' The idea of kairos—that moment that interrupts and forever alters our world—haunts these stories, lingering just off the page as characters' lives are shattered—by falling towers, dead brothers, absent parents, and impending death. Now, neo-Lutheran, existentialist minutia might not seem like recipe for a page-turner, but these stories are funny and bizarre without giving over to cutesiness or kitsch; they're violent and creepy without distracting from the grief that is the heart of Adrian's writing. Ultimately, Adrian is interested in exploring loss, both of an intimate nature and on a grand, more abstract scale. His best work accomplishes both simultaneously . . . The darkness in Adrian's writing is balanced with compassion and wit, and the haunting, eerie scenarios he constructs are only eclipsed by the characters—the children, spirits, and Civil War re-enactors—with which he fills them. If we ever got around to writing that book, that's exactly how we'd want it to be."—Tony Perez, The Portland Mercury

"The heroes of Chris Adrian's tales have a clanging weight about their necks. They are alive, or well, and someone they love is not. Adrian, a divinity student and a doctor, has a beautiful instinct for finding the deepest chords within his characters."—John Freeman, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"The world of Chris Adrian’s fiction is one between Heaven and Hell, where virtue and perversity never exist isolated from the other. Frequently his protagonists are children both precocious and profane, or older characters suffering from chronic, terminal, or mysterious illness. He has so far published two novels, Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital, both informed by his concurrent careers as a working pediatrician and a divinity student . . . For all the thematic richness in his work, it would be an injustice not to mention also the technical ability Adrian shows in his prose. Symbolic structures govern some stories, such as 'The Sum of Our Parts,' in which the spirit of a woman, comatose after a suicide attempt, roams the halls of her hospital, seeing into the minds and hearts of a group of oncology technicians whose unexpressed or unrequited bonds of affection exist in contrast to the severe precautionary behavior they must keep to avoid exposing themselves to the samples of bodily fluids they have to deal with. In many other stories, Adrian masterfully sustains the narrative voice that has become his trademark, straddling a difficult line between insouciance and care that could easily tip one way or the other into nihilistic parody or maudlin mush . . . A Better Angel is as deeply impressive a collection as one could hope for from an author so young, whose best work is surely yet to come."—Kevin Batton, Anthem magazine

“Focused otherwise, the haunting energy and supernal visions found in A Better Angel, Chris Adrian’s new story collection, could have inspired an occult religion. Deeply informed by his work as a pediatrician, as well as subtly imbued with his study of theology, these are hypersensitive to suffering and pain, but they do not seek answers so much as formulate questions, which might be why they feel so true. And while he may at times gesture to another realm, Adrian’s characters are bound to this one, for as Wallace Stevens says, ‘The great poems of heaven and hell have been written’ . . . It must be mentioned, even in passing, that in a few of these stories Adrian has written masterfully about Sept. 11, obliquely recalling the horrific event while summoning all the attendant emotion, a significant accomplishment, considering how authenticity has eluded so many great writers working with the topic. We are fortunate to have a writer such as Adrian, because he articulates the afflictions of this world and this time. Our afflictions. He knows that like the spirit that haunts the hospital in ‘The Sum of Our Parts,’ we are too ‘in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage; without disappointment; without crushing, impenetrable sadness.’”—Cheston Knapp, Richmond Times Dispatch

"Adrian is clearly no MFA mill product. He’s a pediatrician and a divinity student, and he throws these two fields of human endeavor at the walls with a good bit of fearlessness. Not like the 'fearlessness' that’s become its own prose genre, wherein egoist writers pander to a satellite version of mainstream literary trends. No, Adrian dares to use (and re-use) heavily symbolic incidents and character facets, tell the tales in a modest voice, and then challenge himself to make the right combinations of twists in plot and story structure. For instance, when he follows the threads of a roundelay of under-requited loves among third-shift hospital lab techs, all observed by a suicidal wannabe-ghost, he invites readers to chortle at the broad happenstance—but the ending practically rings . . . There’s a high percentage of powerful (and often harrowing) stories here."—T. E. Lyons, Louisville Eccentric Observer

“Not surprisingly, it’s often writers who write book reviews. This makes perfect sense to me. However—and this is just an observation—some book reviews seem to be written as a means of showcasing the insight, vocabulary and cleverness of the reviewer, and the result is a piece of writing that is confounding and often self-serving. So let me make this review straightforward as possible, and my impressions of Chris Adrian’s new collection of short stories A Better Angel as clean and neat as a new-pressed suit. And let me start with this: Chris Adrian rocks! Not since first picking up Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son have I been this jazzed about a short story collection. Upon first reading Adrian’s bio and seeing that aside from being an accomplished writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and Esquire and McSweeney’s, he is also a pediatrician and, in his spare time, studies divinity, I thought, oh boy, here comes one of those overachievers who make the rest of us feel like lumps on the proverbial log. Then I started reading, and let me tell you, these nine stories were pure pleasure, tugging me back and forth between sadness and sorrow, spiritual upheaval and emotional devastation, as well as inducing the occasional cackle of laughter. Am I gushing? So be it. Although there’s a danger in tethering the writer to the writing, seeing Adrian is a pediatrician, it comes as little surprise that a number of his protagonists are children and many of the stories are set in or around a hospital. In ‘Stab,’ an eight-year-old Siamese twin whose brother has died of leukemia—a trauma that causes the narrator to become willfully mute—meets an equally disturbed female classmate whose parents died in a car accident, and the two go on a slaying spree of the neighborhood animals. While death looms large in A Better Angel, so does the spiritual world, or at least the presence of a redeeming spirituality. In the title story, a hapless and drug-addicted doctor moves to Florida to be with his dying father as his guardian angel judges him to the point where he finds himself wishing for another kind of angel—a better one. Adrian also manages to incorporate the events of Sept. 11, 2001, into his fiction in fresh ways that don’t stoop to forced flag-waving or clichéd over-sentimentality. The result is haunting. In ‘Why Antichrist,’ a teenage boy whose father was killed in the collapse of the twin towers finds himself communicating with the devil via a Ouija board, and ‘The Vision of Peter Damian’ has a small village of children possessed by premonitions of the attacks years before the invention of the airplane. ‘The Changeling’ follows a father whose young son becomes possessed by the vengeful voices of the thousands killed on the fateful day in New York City. While my praise might seem effusive, I invite you to look at the last line of ‘The Sum of Our Parts,’ where the spirit of a woman who has fallen into a coma after an attempted suicide is roaming the hospital grounds while awaiting a liver transplant. ‘Halfway across she took off, went up and away, in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing, impenetrable sadness.’ Yes, Mr. Adrian, you indeed rock. A+”—Nate Graziano, Hippo

“Spirits and demons and a persistent faith populate Chris Adrian's crystalline stories in A Better Angel . . . In Adrian's lyrical kingdom . . . most attempts at intimacy, friendship, and love become something more dark, complex and spiritually wrenching.”—Vince Passaro, O, The Oprah Magazine

"His stories are about loneliness, grotesques, kids so angry they’re demonic, bizarre leaps of imagination and 100 forms of redemption. They’re also funny, and they manage to inject everyday preoccupations like food, sex and friendship into bizarre and provocative frames of reference. In Adrian’s work, nightmarish fears not only come true, they take on a quirky normality . . . You can’t read Chris Adrian with any preconceptions. A physician to the core, he is immersed in the human body, yet his work is driven by pure spirit. His angels aren’t entirely benign, and his doctors are not gods; in fact they’re often frighteningly inept. (He says he writes 'caricatures of my own incompetence'; what he means is his abiding fear of being incompetent.) Children are not innocent, they’re angry. One drinks blood; another kills small furry animals. You recoil, and then you find out, say, that the little girl is trying to kill her way back to her parents, who died in a car accident, and you feel yourself forgiving her and redefining innocence in the process. Adrian draws empathy from us as surely as technicians draw blood. It’s because he doesn’t flinch at ugliness, pus, death, weirdness or wildness. He stays near, watching gently. Patient as an angel."—Jeannette Cooperman, National Catholic Reporter

“Chris Adrian has earned a B.A. in English from the University of Florida. He has an M.D. from Eastern Virginia Medical School. He’s earning a new degree in a pediatric hematology/oncology program in San Francisco. He’s two years from a degree from Harvard Divinity School. Oh, and did we mention the M.F.A. from the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop? Plus, all the honorary degrees that will inevitably rain down as Adrian adds to a body of work that now includes two acclaimed novels—Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital—and new story collection A Better Angel. Not bad for a dude three years shy of age 40. Still, he remains a humble, likable nobody—at least in his own mind. ‘I guess I feel the same way about becoming better-known as a writer as I do about taking a trip to the moon,’ he says. ‘I think it would be really neat, but I also think it is not very likely to happen. Obscurity is not so bad, and to misquote one of my old teachers—who is vastly my superior in talent and wit—“My insignificance is not to be questioned.”’ Modesty aside, A Better Angel centrifuges potent elements of Adrian’s fiction—the supernatural, the surreal, the metaphorical—in nine astonishing stories. His theme is suffering, often of children, and how victims handle it—or how it handles them. In one story, a girl’s soul leaves her injured body to stroll around a hospital. In another, two girls grieve by stabbing animals. Adrian plays the good diagnostician, probing membranes between life and death, good and evil, vision and reality. Like Chuck Palahniuk, Adrian goes for the throat of his demons. His work is pockmarked by emotional and terribly physical violence. ‘It’s been on my mind a lot, given what’s been going on in the world the past eight to 10 years,’ he says. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time opening up my veins as a writer, and my obsessions. I’m still horrifying myself at what pops out.’”—Charles McNair, Paste

“Potent . . . Chris Adrian succeeds in snaring some elusive nuances of big subjects: loss and grief, and in particular the dubious ways in which we try to work around life’s incomprehensibilities. Though frequently told from a child’s point of view (Adrian’s day job: pediatrician), these stories don’t resort to cuteness or cheap comfort, but through wit and furious inventiveness earn our trust and achieve a hypnotic grace.  Adrian is especially adept at rendering the uneasy relationship between the living and the dead. In ‘The Sum of Our Parts,’ a woman on life support hovers over the hospital staff as they attempt to save her, investing herself as much in their private lives as they have in hers. ‘Stab’ follows the doomed alliance of two children who’ve suffered very adult devastations: a bereaved twin and his orphaned neighbor, whose violent rampages are interrupted by an unexpectedly tranquil moment catching fireflies. ‘I thought she was waiting for us to fill the jar so she could stick her hand in and crush them mercilessly . . . But when it was dark, when we had caught about 30 of them . . . she took off the lid and went running down the hill, spilling a trail of bright motes that circled around her, then rose up and flew away down the hill to the river.’  Adrian knows that emotions can stretch in ways reason can’t keep up with: In ‘Why Antichrist?’ a girl whose father died in the 9/11 attacks decides a classmate is responsible for them and seeks to befriend him in a bent effort at redemption. Adrian’s handling of 9/11 in several stories captures his strongest suits: an instinctive mistrust of the glib and easy, and an insistent undertow pulling toward greater depths."—Caroline McCloskey, Elle

“Adrian explores his subjects with caution, respect, and most of all, imagination . . . His prose is heady enough to support Big Statements—he has the rare ability to talk about souls and be sincere . . . There are stories so thoroughly imagined and expertly written that alone they warrant the price of the entire collection.”—The Rake

"Edgy and otherworldly, this is a book of dark dreams."—The Arizona Republic
“Chris Adrian's life is a dedicated exploration of the things that matter most, and his writing is his companion and interlocutor, his guide and interpreter, as he travels a landscape not before seen by other eyes. And every report he makes of that world enriches and enlarges our own sense of the world we thought we knew.”—Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead

“Illness, loss and grief assume ingeniously arresting forms in this short-story collection from a uniquely gifted author who is also a practicing pediatrician and divinity-school student.  Adrian once again voices the preoccupation with denying death that was so prominent in his sui generis debut novel, Gob’s Grief. Nine often harrowing tales explore the darkness within children rendered older than their years with an intensity reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce and a penchant for fablelike indirection that echoes Angela Carter, with an occasional whiff of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s insistent symbolism. The obsessiveness of Adrian’s fiction reveals itself in recurrent narrative patterns. This method emerges clearly in ‘High Speeds,’ which depicts an intellectually precocious boy coping with his father’s death in a plane crash (during a drug run), his nowhere mother and his deeply disturbed younger brother by concealing himself inside a rebellious fantasy world inspired by the loopy Martian adventure novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Similarly outré protagonists crop up frequently. ‘The Vision of Peter Damien’ shows a boy who seems immune to illnesses afflicted by omens derived from the incidents of 9/11 (repeatedly channeled in several stories) that promise a cleansing apocalypse. In the title story, a grown man caring for his dying father is visited and abused by a quarrelsome angel. And in ‘Why Antichrist?’ a boy hoping to commune with his dead father accidentally summons Satan instead . . . Adrian’s best pieces will haunt you unmercifully: ‘The Sum of Our Parts’ (disembodied spirit of a suicide prowls the hospital ward); ‘Stab’ (separated Siamese twin represses the loss of his brother by joining a deranged girl’s killing spree); and ‘A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death’ (stories compiled by the surviving bearer of horrific birth defects). Abrasive, accusatory, despairing and . . . quite unforgettable fiction.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“As he did in The Children’s Hospital, Adrian again toes a unique line between fiction writer and prophet. If that staggering novel was a diamond in the rough, these short stories can be seen as the chips and shards left by a craftsman working to uncover the full range of his prodigious skill. He returns to the themes (sickness, childhood, and revelation) that have served him so well thus far in his career—no surprise for a man who is, in addition to being a writer, a divinity student and a pediatrician. Physical and mental maladies stand in for larger ailments of the soul, and religious trappings—angels and demons, visions and possession—are beatific and horrific at the same time, impossible to untangle one from the other. Each work in this collection helps solidify Adrian’s position as one of the most exciting, inventive writers working today. The moment you feel as if you’ve discovered the meaning in his words, it slips between your fingers and leaves you unsettled, unmoored, and unmistakably impressed.”—Ian Chipman, Booklist (starred review)

“The author of Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital returns with a sublime collection of nine stories whose wide assortment of characters, many of them children, fugue around death, are plagued by remembrance of things past and are possessed by violence. In ‘Stab,’ a young protagonist whose twin died, joins a little girl in a killing spree of neighborhood animals, eventually setting their sights on larger prey. A woman who tries to commit suicide in ‘The Sum of Our Parts’ wanders hospital halls as an astral projection, witnessing the unexpressed desires of her ‘friends’ in pathology. And a Juno-esque teen, a hospital regular with short-gut syndrome, writes an animal book of sublimated child-ward life: bunnies with ‘high colonic ruin,’ cats with ‘leukemic indecisiveness’ and monkeys with ‘chronic kidney doom.’ The story ‘Why Antichrist?’ gives us two teenagers who have each lost parents, one to 9/11 (which looms large in the collection); the devil is soon literally between the teens. With heartbreaking imagination, Adrian illuminates how people act out their grief on their own bodies and the bodies of others, and enter the world of the spirit in the process.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

That November I’m nine and stealing: candy from the super­market; toys from the dime store; books from the bookstore. And not Curious George and the Bad Touch or Tales of a Fourth Grade Fuck-Up, though I am in fourth grade, and fucked-up. I’m too smart for those books, too smart for the fourth grade, but Mama won’t let them skip me. I’m too smart for Miami Springs, and too smart for my own good.
In November of 1979 I’m four feet ten inches tall, and Papa has been dead for nine months. My little brother is crazy, and I want sometimes
Read the full excerpt


  • Chris Adrian

  • Chris Adrian is the author of Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital. He is a Fellow in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the University of California, San Francisco.
  • Chris Adrian © Gus Elliott