“I love your book. Call me.”
That message, delivered in an e-mail from Tin House editorial director Lee Montgomery, was classic, but for the first-time author who received it, Michele Matheson, the journey to get there was something else — unless you consider descent into the junkie nightmare classic as well.
Matheson, 35, is the daughter of two actors, Deanna Lund and Don Matheson, and is an actress herself, having played, among other roles, Randy Quaid’s Amish girlfriend in Kingpin, the “dimwitted but beautiful” Angela Chatstikovich in TV’s Mr. Belvedere and a lead in the Academy Award–nominated short Johnny Flynton.
When she was a teenager and hanging out with rock bands on tour, Matheson says, she was always the one who kept it clean, drugwise, but in the early ’90s, that all changed. She began using heroin, and the next seven or eight years passed the way they do for addicts — badly, for the most part. Although there is not necessarily a direct line from Matheson’s life to that of her protagonist in Saving Angelfish — a young female actress called Maxella Gordon — Matheson says that she has “experienced some of these things.” (Maxella’s parents play a significant role in the book, which Matheson dedicates to her mother and father “for their enduring patience and will to love.”) Matheson herself didn’t manage to get clean — and stay there — until the summer of 2001, at 29. A few months later, she walked into Jim Krusoe’s beginning writing class at Santa Monica College.
“She looked a little disheveled, like she just fell off a bandstand,” says Krusoe. He gave the class an exercise for the following week, and when he read Matheson’s take, he said to himself, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” On the basis of Matheson’s response to a second writing exercise, Krusoe asked her to move into his advanced class. “Her work was original and curious. I just wanted to see where she would go with it.”
So too did her new classmates, most of whom were what Krusoe calls “ladies from a different era. She was writing about shooting up, and they said, ‘We didn’t know this could be so interesting!’ And they were with her all the way.”
Matheson also credits the “older ladies” in her class, one of whom told her to “write from places that make you shake.” Well, if Matheson had anything, it was places that made her shake. So she kept writing. “I borrowed their faith in the project,” she says. And the results kept impressing classmates and teacher alike.
“Michele is a natural writer with a rare ability to sound like herself,” says Krusoe. “She’s smart as hell, and when she was revising, she would do it five times better than I imagined. My socks would fall off at what she would do with my little suggestions.” At a certain point, Krusoe realized that what Matheson was working on was a book. “I said to myself, ‘Holy shit, I’m dealing with more than I thought here.’ ”
Saving Angelfish is a relentlessly dark tale — no non-junkie reading it is going to run out to buy heroin — suffused with, and buoyed by, light. Maxella, or Max, is strung out every which way — too far from her parents (who won’t let her back into their lives until she’s clean), too close to junkie friends like Wolf or dealers like the rapacious Grandpops or the legless Carlotta. If she isn’t exactly doing her best to get clean, moving from one to the other in the days leading up to Christmas, she is simply doing her best, with help from Frances, a talking porcelain angel Max meets at Rite Aid. The book begins:
Max lies on the beach with one night clean. The sickness is beginning, and still, she has an odd, vaguely familiar feeling of being alive. Considering it’s a typical Los Angeles winter morning, about fifty degrees, and she’s down to a hundred pounds, not a lot of hair on her head, and coming off heroin, she’s surprised she hasn’t frozen to death. She can thank a Canadian postwoman’s jacket for that. The ocean’s rushing and waiting sounds put everything into perspective. It rumbles and sighs like it’s lonely. She listens.
The surf is a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes it’s calm. It sleeps and dreams. And underneath, the fish, the plants, they move like eyes rolling back and forth under the surface of an eyelid. Other times the sea swells like a heart.
Right away, you get Matheson’s yin and yang: the dark and the light, near-death and life, bleak realities and sweet imaginings. She packs a punch from the depths, a place you’re not sure you want to know about, yet at the same time possesses a delicate nature. And she has the ability to make you see things in a simple and yet memorable way. In the middle of a harrowing, deeply drawn scene, one that opens, “Max’s apartment is dry and stuffy and smells like vinegar,” Matheson writes:
When she gets used to it, she withstands looking down at her body, at her infection. The gauze still covers it but is soaked with blood and now water. She tears the gauze off and drops it. It spreads into pink elephant ears and floats to the drain.
The power of Saving Angelfish comes from these images and the place in Matheson from which they emerge; it seems that this is the place that helped her escape her own personal hell, and to write this book. It’s the same essential lightness that gets Max through it, and compels the reader to follow her.
This is not to say that Saving Angelfish is flawless — the book could have been even leaner, the editing more rigorous; characters’ names could have been more organic; and the use of Frances, who comes and goes, could have been more consistent. But you also get something special from new writers when you give them enough rope. If some hang themselves, others give you something to be grateful for:
A long time ago, she taped brown grocery-bag paper over the mirror above the sink. It was after a night of bingeing on cocaine. First she cropped her hair and shaved her head. Then she shaved off her eyebrows. She felt like how a dog must feel after getting sheared; all that work building a scent, defining oneself, only to be clipped off. Shaving off her eyebrows was like erasing anger from her face. And the darkness was left just under her eyes in half-moons.
It was Krusoe, of course, who told Matheson to send her manuscript to Tin House. “He saved my life,” she says. “Totally.”
You might assume that that “Totally” is said with a great heaviness, but you’d be wrong. If you can’t hear her read, you’ll have to trust me on this: While the gravity of her personal story is clear, Matheson’s delivery will nonetheless make you smile.
SAVING ANGELFISH | By MICHELE MATHESON | Tin House Books | 250 pages | $14 softcover
Matheson will read at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, on Saturday, Feb. 10, 5 p.m.