Dirty Little Angels

General Fiction, Mystery & Thrillers, Young Adult

By Chris Tusa

Publisher : University of West Alabama Press

ABOUT Chris Tusa

Chris Tusa
Chris Tusa was born and raised in New Orleans. He holds a B.A. in English, an M.A in English, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. His debut novel, Dirty Little Angels, was published by The University of West Alabama in March of 2009. He recently received a gra More...



Set in New Orleans, among clusters of crack houses and abandoned buildings, Dirty Little Angels is the story of sixteen year old Hailey Trosclair. When the Trosclair family suffers a string of financial hardships and a miscarriage, Hailey finds herself looking to God to save her family. When her prayers go unanswered, Hailey puts her faith in Moses Watkins, a failed preacher and ex-con. Gradually, though, Moses’s twisted religious beliefs become increasingly more violent, and Hailey and Cyrus soon find themselves trapped in a world of danger and fear from which there may be no escape.

Dirty Little Angels is the To Kill a Mockingbird of 2009. Brilliant, tender, engrossing, compassionate and challenging, Chris Tusa’s Dirty Little Angels marks the debut of a brave new voice in contemporary American literature. »Burl Barer, author of Mom Said Kill


If I had a dollar for every sentence in Dirty Little Angels that blew my mind, I’d be able to buy a decent Chevy Nova outright. Christopher Tusa is a new and powerful voice in American fiction, and I truly believe that this raw and poetic first novel marks the beginning of a great and glorious career.»Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff


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


Listen up, folks: Chris Tusa has written a nasty little novel that somehow lifts close to grace its downtrodden and sometimes blackhearted inhabitants. They’re fallen and broken, but like the New Orleans through which they stagger and flail, they are lovely ruins–and like New Orleans they are only one storm away from the End Times. Witness the storm, as told by Tusa: Dirty Little Angels. » Josh Russell, author of Yellow Jack


Only a writer with searing gifts of observation and an almost desperate generosity of spirit could pull off a contemporary story of despair and redemption with such Dickensian precision. Meet Chris Tusa. Right out of the box, Mr. Tusa establishes a tough contract: He writes from the perspective of a teen-aged girl – no small feat, that – and he paints Hailey as a grittier, tougher, more badass version of Scout Finch. Then he proceeds to dig in his toolbox and unpack every gizmo at his disposal: words so packed with action, feeling and tension that you know you’re either in New Orleans or in the presence of a fine new generation of Crescent City writer. After all, the City that Care Forgot is the world’s most sensuous city, and Mr. Tusa takes care to expose our every sense – from a human face scorched to resemble a brown-paper bag to a human heart ravaged by the same forces that still rattle the bones of Blanche DuBois. » John Jeter, author of The Plunder Room


The violence in Dirty Little Angels is edifying, in the way Faulkner’s violence is meant to instruct, without pulling any punches. It is not for the squeamish . . . and it is not without impunity that we finish it: we are marked by it. I came away from this book feeling the same way I felt after readingSanctuary, like I had just experienced great literature, a symphony of images, but also like I might be served a summons to appear in court for having committed some crime.” » Gwilym Lucas Eades from Librarything


Chris Tusa’s Dirty Little Angels , the writer’s first novel, is a gritty, visceral, and sometimes heartbreaking, exploration of the underbelly of New Orleans through the eyes of its sixteen year-old narrator, Hailey Trosclair. This is a book with a seam of hopelessness running through its 147 pages. Whether it’s the broken-down streets and buildings of New Orleans, or the brutal characterization of the inhabitants of the area, there’s a pervading sense of impending disaster in this novel.

Hailey Trosclair is a character of some complication—a willful ingenue intent on using her charms to capture the attention of her best friend Meridian’s boyfriend, Chase. A witness to her brother’s brutal beating of a young boy suspected of being a pedophile; and a visitor of the cancer ward of the local hospital where the husband of her father’s lover, Iris, lies dying of stomach cancer, Hailey circumnavigates a territory of such weight she is destined to sink beneath that world and perish. However, her strength and assiduity carry her through numerous obstacles, and in the end she emerges through such a rite of passage as to leave her stripped of all artifice and naivety. Hailey’s layering is accomplished in such skillful means that it’s hard to believe this is Tusa’s first attempt at the novel form. The author draws the reader into the problematic world of this teenage girl and elicits much sympathy for his floundering heroine.

What impresses about this novel is the rich language Tusa utilizes to describe both character and place. Hailey “dreamed of Mama’s flesh creak¬ing as the doctor unstitched the trapdoor in her stomach. Her insides looked like crushed red velvet, and the baby’s skin was blue as a robin’s egg.” Indeed, Tusa’s most evocative writing is sometimes found in the precise descriptions of the supporting cast of characters like the aptly named preacher, Moses Watkins, who harbors dreams of building a drive-through church in the remnants of an abandoned bank. Tusa’s eye for detail is seen as he describes the bank:

The lobby was empty, except for a few lawn chairs and a stained mattress with rusted springs sticking out the side. The walls were covered with posters, mostly of half-naked girls in string bikinis, rappers with muscles carved into their chests sporting gold chains and fists full of money. Across the room a girl in a pink half-shirt was passed out on the mattress, a half-drunk bottle of Purple Haze in her hand.

The finely wrought descriptions of New Orleans and its post-apocalyptic landscape are wonderfully written and bring the city to life in all its miserable glory. There’s not a misstep in Tusa’s handling of his landscape, and unlike so many recent novels where place and setting are perhaps relegated to the status of Anytown USA, Tusa’s New Orleans is presented as almost another character in and of itself. In fact, Moses Watkins can be read as a trope for New Orleans. He is an enigmatic, larger than life character, who is at times immensely charismatic and at other times a violent and heartless man with destruction in his heart.

The novel’s title is a reference to something Hailey is told in recovery after she swallows a bunch of her mother’s sleeping pills. Chloe says, “I see angels wherever I go,” and calls them dirty because, “They have to eat our souls before we can go to Heaven.” When the angels eat the souls, the dirt “rubs off on their hands and mouths when they eat it.” The title could also come from the complicated range of Hailey’s experiences and behavior. Hailey is the “Dirty little angel” who struggles with the oft-wavering needle of her moral compass as she attempts to understand her place in the world and make sense of those around her.

Dirty Little Angels has been compared to both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and The Catcher in the Rye. However, Tusa’s novel explores Hailey’s ruthless pursuit of the self, a journey that neither McCullers nor Salinger fully explores. In Hailey’s ultimate confrontation of Moses, the reader is privy to her complicated salvation. The novel’s brings both rape and murder to the forefront and in Hailey’s selfless attempt to protect her brother, Cyus, she of childhood and enters the world of adulthood with her own crudely realized morality—a code that will hopefully serve to guide her through the dog-eat-dog streets of New Orleans as she seeks her place in the world. » James Claffey, New Delta Review


Dirty Little Angels is a powerful novel – fast paced, riveting, and gritty. In this remarkable novel, Chris Tusa renders revelations about urban teens with startling honesty and deep compassion. Tusa is a gifted author and an amazing new talent. » Bev Marshall, author of Right as Rain


In his debut novel Dirty Little Angels, Louisiana writer Chris Tusa explores the dirty little world of the New Orleans slums and the downtrodden people who stumble through the bad side of town among crack houses, drug dealers, and rampant poverty. This raw and gritty story sucks the reader in to the dangerous, hopeless lives of two urban teenagers, Hailey Trosclair and her brother Cyrus, as she desperately tries to save her dysfunctional family from ruin.

Sixteen-year-old Hailey watches helplessly as her parents’ marriage falls apart because of her father’s infidelity and her mother’s depression. She also watches Cyrus, her older brother and hero, as he slides into the underbelly of New Orleans urban life. She looks to God for salvation, but finds instead a twisted preacher and ex-con named Moses who poisons her ideas about religion and pulls her and Cyrus further into a downward spiral.

Tusa has a knack for urban dialogue, which he uses effectively to create the flawed, black-hearted characters who whirl around Hailey and Cyrus in this dark tale. He paints his nasty characters honestly, but not without compassion. Tusa has a great understanding of the beauty that lies beneath the glaring flaws of his tragic characters. He also has a knack for ending a chapter. His final sentences pack such a punch that you simply must turn the page and keep reading.

This is a fast-paced, powerful story, a story that moves quickly and tragically to the very end. But it is not a story without some redemption, some salvation. Tusa has shown us a world full of desperate people, but at least it is a world in which some of them are still seeking, still searching for some glimmer of hope. As readers, we are fully aware we are following Hailey on a journey straight to Hell, but we somehow think she can find her way home again.

Though this is his first novel, Tusa has published a book of poetry, titled Haunted Bones, and his work has appeared in Connecticut Review, Texas Review, Prairie Schooner, The New Delta Review, Passages North, and others. A native of New Orleans, he teaches in the English department at LSU. His is a new and powerful voice arising from the South, and there is no doubt we will hear more from him in the years to come. April 2009 » Beth Wilder, Alabama Writer’s Forum


Dirty Little Angels is rich with characters who are beautifully flawed and within arm’s reach of redemption. This is a raw and tender debut.
» Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Mercy of Thin Air


Seventy years ago, the poet May Sarton wrote about a debut novel “When one puts it down it is not with a feeling of emptiness and despair (which an outline of the plot might suggest), but with a feeling of having been nourished by the truth.” She was writing about Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but she might have written the same observation today about Chris Tusa’s Dirty Little Angels.

Each story is told from the perspective of a young girl in the American South, though Tusa’s Hailey Trosclair is a few years older and a little ‘harder’ than McCullers’ Mick Kelly. Both girls come of age in households where the father’s unemployment and the mother’s bitterness at slipping down the socio-economic ladder preoccupy them to the point that their children are forced out of the house to learn life’s lessons. On the way to learning those lessons, both girls deal with issues as banal as classroom popularity and as serious as death.

Like McCullers, Tusa eschews the happy ending. If angels must eat the souls of the departed on their way to Heaven they will get dirty indeed covering Hailey Trosclair’s New Orleans neighborhood, where the truth is that violence is part of life’s fabric and death happens easily. But true to New Orleans tradition, Tusa offers lagniappes — over the bleak canvas of his plot he paints beautiful word-pictures that let us see what Hailey sees, creating an empathy that make us care deeply about his characters and enjoy reading his story.» John S. Rigney


Tusa’s is a brave new voice. He avoids the heavy-hand, offering no clear moral certainty, letting all of his characters exist all people truly are: flawed. This novel has more courage and steely-eyed truth than I’ve found in much recent Southern gothic. This sub-genre is a tricky one, because the majority of its practitioners are so well-versed in its traditions that they often instinctually fall back on the tried and true, failing to look around them today. That is, I’d suggest that they know the South more through its literature than through its current, lived lives. I can’t think of another way to explain all of the cliches. Tusa lays witness to the contemporary grotesque in all its full, glorious bloom. For instance, he does not have his depraved characters removed from more civilized society, a move found in so much O’Connor, Dickey, and McCarthy. Rather, he situates his novel in the here and now: 2008, smack dab in the heart of ruined New Orleans. His characters have the tradition’s familiar religious zeal that approaches madness the way I might a long lost puppy found in a scrap yard. And when he employs the grotesque’s ubiquitous taste for violence, it is far from the traditional mindless variety: his characters are literally beating God into your bloody face. If his characters are illiterate, it is not because they are simply ignorant; to the contrary, they are too integrated into the larger commercial America, consuming La-Z-boys, Chic-fil-A, Miller Lite, etc. Material influences press upon them at every turn and corner, such that even though his characters are broke, unemployed, reduced to stealing and selling their plasma, they still manage to budget enough money for all the crap they see on TV: Blackberries, collagen lip injections, high-speed internet, melanin implants, and so on. In fact, one character takes out a payday loan for his high school daughter’s boob job, and another man is being evicted from his home by his own brother because he refuses to go to work at “a low-rent job like Wal-Mart.”

More impressive, however, than Tusa’s devotion to the much-neglected but vibrant Southern grotesque, is his prose, which is sharp, crystal-clear, and poetic, bringing a dignity to these troubled characters’ lives. Tusa’s prose will put you in Moses’ un-airconditioned church. You will smell the opened tin of sardines set on the floor beside the rusted lawn chairs that serve as pews; feel the pressure and angst of teenagers who hurl their bodies into emotionless sex as easily as they throw, from the windows of speeding junk cars, their empty Zima bottles into ditches, overgrown with weeds; see the burned boy whose face looks like “brown paper bag with two holes ripped out for eyes.” The grease in the words becomes palpable, and after reading this wonderfully nasty little novel, you’ll need a shower to get the smell of tobacco smoke out of your hair. And even then it will haunt you, and you will hear the car tires crunching over oyster shell driveways, hear the rain dripping from busted gutters onto a pile of leaves, and perhaps even hear—as young Hailey does—the scratching of cockroaches scurrying within your skull. And that haunted house is worth the price of admission.» Michael Garriga

(from Spring 2009 Issue of Story South)