Playing the Angel
by Kenneth Womack
Stephen F. Austin State University Press

"No one - nobody - can touch me here. In the place where my magical powers achieve their greatest potency. Where I can be superhuman, if only for a little while."

Beginning with a chase through a New Orleans cemetery, this story teases the reader with mystery throughout the tale until the very end. Even in the early scenes, the reader is wondering which character is the good guy: the girl dressed as an angel or the two policemen chasing her?

The narrative that follows is one of quiet dignity in a world full of chaos. Tiff Proulx doesn't intend to become a Street when she chooses to attend Tulane University for her master's degree in mathematics. However, the events that occur, following her survival of Hurricane Katrina in the dangerously flooded 9th Precinct, shatter her sense of self. Fragmented and lost, she finds herself working with the owner of a costume shop, sharing the tips she earns on the street as a living statue, performing for the growing numbers of visitors to her struggling city. Eventually, this role has the potential to be her redemption, but could as easily become her destruction.

Tiff's journey from shy, naïve college student to living statue/vigilante is a journey of self-discovery and a hopeful return to balance. The cast of supporting characters she gathers around her each contribute to the missing pieces of her identity Tiff lost during the storm. Although few of them knew her prior to the storm, each is able to fill in gaps for her in unexpected ways. The natural way this takes place as each character gives and takes what is needed is a masterful work of literary beauty. Full of their own flaws and limitations, eliminating just one of these characters would not provide Tiff with the tools she needs to make her way forward.

Everything about this book lives up to the expectations engendered by the knowledge it was written by an English professor from Penn State. There is one moment of confusion when the timeline shifts at an otherwise unmarked chapter break, but it is quickly overcome as the reader again becomes swept up in the action. Chapter titles continuously remind readers of the unique culture and atmosphere that is New Orleans, including the buildings and geography. The prose itself is rich with symbolism and metaphor.

With a delicious noir tone, Tiff survives Hurricane Katrina to personify the ruined city as it makes its slow recovery toward normalcy. With enough suspense to keep the pages turning, Playing the Angel is strangely soothing. At less than 200 pages, it is quick to read yet full of action as the characters commence romping through the streets of the Big Easy. It is simple to get lost in the story for an afternoon or two. Yet the story is ended much too soon. That is not to say the ending is unsatisfactory. Rather, it leaves readers with a sense of loss as the final page is turned and we must bid farewell to this gentle character with a heart as big as the city she defends.

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