Angels Descending is the story of two American brothers living in England with their family during the fall and spring of 1964-65. The story chronicles the events leading to, and following, the death of sixteen year old Porter “Poge” Bushing, a death for which younger brother Matthew holds himself singularly responsible. Matthew is the storyteller, but he does so from two perspectives; one as a fourteen year old, the other as a middle-aged man who has had thirty years to reflect upon that time. His narrative—then and now—flows back and forth like two streams feeding a single river, moving inexorably to the place where he must finally confront his past and find peace in his soul.
The adult Matt Bushing, now a world-renowned painter, has not been able to return to England since that time because of debilitating guilt. But when the Royal Academy of Arts announces that they are featuring his works in the prestigious “Summer Exhibition” he must return. As he makes his anxious pilgrimage back, he sketches with eidetic clarity the people and events surrounding his brother’s death. It is a kind of penance. Drawing is his way of building a fortification against guilt; subduing the chaos in his soul one sketch at a time. But as he discovers, en route, it is a vain defense.
The bulk of the story takes place at St. Mary Close, an all-boy British school, “built before Columbus discovered America,” where young Matt, as naïve and innocent as the country he has left behind, struggles to find his place among men and boys (Yank-haters) who are at odds with him for little more reason than “America got into the war late.” Matt is pliable, resourceful; he survives, despite seeming insurmountable odds, because he able to bend in a fierce wind. His brother Poge, on the other hand, is not a bender. A “rocket in a bottle,” Poge defends his honor (both personal and national) with his fists, defying father and mother, teacher and schoolmate, even his brother Matt, when the latter refuses to acknowledge a terrible truth about a beautiful siren who beckons him ever closer to the rocks.
An orbit of lesser and greater lights provide the “man-shapers” in Matt’s universe. Trev Thorne, leader of a clot of toughs Matt simply calls “the troublemakers,” guides him through the British culture of the mid-sixties—rock and roll, birds, and warm beer. The barbaric, gap-toothed “Banger” tests his mettle on the rugby field; while Titch (a limey devil, if ever there was one) tests his patriotism in Latin class. Mr. Buckingham helps Matt develop his extraordinary gift for “shucking the oyster;” a phrase describing an artist’s ability to uncover the pearl of truth in a subject. Whirling through the story like a comet on a collision course with Matt is the beautiful but capricious Jill Waters, the boy’s love, who becomes the impetus behind dark events that lead to his brother’s violent death. However, it is Poge who most profoundly shapes Matt’s life. Poge is like a star gone supernova, one whose light is still visible years after its death. It is in such light that Matt finally sees, with the help of an enigmatic, one-armed geometry teacher nicknamed Fruit, that God has sent His angels, angels with feet of clay, to walk among us and teach us the meaning of forgiveness. A difficult oyster to shuck.
Angels Descending is a bittersweet story about the love between two brothers, a love at times held in a fist, at times openly self-sacrificing. It is a love full of “hilarious pain,” transcending love of country, love of women, even love of self, a love that leads Matt to discover life’s true meaning and purpose reflected in the face of God. The pearl shining.