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Saving Angelfish

When we meet Max, she’s lying on the beach, drug sick and hoping to stay clean for the day. As she flails in her attempts to find her way out of debt and off of drugs, her exhaustion deepens to desperate proportions. Violence and drug use haunt this gritty account of the dark world that blisters just below the gleaming surface of Los Angeles. Matheson captures both sides, and she does so with a wink, choosing offbeat and surreal elements such as a talking drugstore angel shoplifted from Rite Aid.

  • Page Count: 249
  • Direct Price: $11.25
  • List Price: $14.00
  • 5 x 7 1/4
  • Paperback
  • December 2006
  • 0-9773127-6-3
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Michele Matheson lives in Los Angeles.

"This is a flawlessly executed study of a life that's fully dissolved." 
—Los Angeles Times

"Her novel of addiction, of coming close to bottoming out…rings as true as any memoir I've read." 
 Russ Harvey, KQED

“In that land where literary characters live, Maxella, the heroine of Saving Angelfish, shares the same space as Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, and Holden Caulfield. But though Max’s neighborhood, like Alice’s and Caulfield’s, is funny and wondrous, her actual street is a far more dangerous and scary place to hang out. In questioning just how much anyone can break free from the past, Matheson’s voice is dead-on, fresh, and completely winning. Michele Matheson is a find.”
—Jim Krusoe, author of Iceland

"Matheson's promising debut, a gritty novel from Tin House Books' New Voice Series, tells the bleak story of a wayward L.A. junkie named Max. Virtually disowned by her dysfunctional parents, out of a job, sickeningly underweight, months behind on rent and unable to kick her debilitating heroin habit, Max flits from day to depressing day in a constant state of decrepitude. When she's not shooting up, she's snorting coke, and when she's not doing that she's thinking about her next fix. Despite her spiraling decline and a number of near-death experiences, nothing really changes for Max throughout her story. Her dealers (Grandpops, her crusty, repulsive landlord; and Carlotta, a beastly legless woman) and fellow junkies (Wolf and a roller-skating waif named Tutu) share Max's single-minded pursuit of getting high. Though initially mesmerizing, the drug-centric plot begins to ware a little thin; the crux of the book can be found in Max's unchanging attitude toward her life: "The goal is not to think-about anything. She winds up places, and that's fine." Nonetheless, Matheson's sharp, highly detailed prose thrusts readers in the driver's seat of an out-of-control life."
Publisher's Weekly

"The brutality and purgatorial repetition that is the outer life of a heroin addict conceals a shimmering inner world in Michele Matheson’s debut novel, Saving Angelfish. Luminous language traces a phosphorescent trail through the book’s dark journey."
—Janet Fitch, author of Paint It Black

"Gritty, poignant, funny, achingly dark, Saving Angelfish marks the debut of an impressive new literary talent. Michele Matheson has a keen eye, a ravaged ancient soul and a lyrical voice—a powerful combination that has produced a remarkable book." 
—John Lescroart, author of The Hunt Club

"The end of one’s rope is where my favorite literature begins and Saving Angelfish is a strong contributor to that brave, luminous pile. Authentic desperation reeks from every page of this novel, which makes for an arresting reading experience. Humor and tension is all the right places."
—Benjamin Weissman, author of Headless

"Saving Angelfish resonates with the kind of raw power and fearless, unsparing prose that will remind readers of earlier classics of the genre like Requiem for a Dream and The Basketball Diaries. Michele Matheson, God help her, has done the research—and lived to tell the tale. This is a darkly beautiful novel, as seductive and brutal as a smack habit—and just as hard to shake."
—Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight

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. A big wave could kill me, Max thinks. She sees herself float on it. The sun is drying the salt in her eyebrows and nose. It’s easy to appreciate these things when it seems you’re going to die.


Max sneezes. Her eyes water and she wipes them. She holds her hands in front of the sun to block the light. The waves come at her. They come in and go out again, over and over. The ocean is either very giving or it’s completely nuts.


The veins on Max’s hands are green—same color as the Pacific. The idea of relief floats into her mind: sticking the needle in real fast and hard, pushing down on the plunger instead of a careful tap tap tap. That would feel good.


Then she remembers Ernest’s line: “What would love do?”


Max had looked at Ernest from where she sat; on the toilet, balancing the needle and the bag of dope on her lap, holding the warm crack pipe in her hand. It wasn’t a test question—his mind wasn’t made up yet. His white knuckles squeezed the doorknob. The other hand he put in his pocket because he wanted to punch the door or smash the crack pipe in the tub, but he’d done that before. She knew that he was asking her to make his decision. What should she have said? Love would never leave? She watched the tentacle connecting them fall to the floor, twitching and bleeding like a hooked eel. Her cells tightened, suffocating what light was left inside her.


“I don’t know,” she’d said. If he would just stop looking at me and shut the damn door, I can finish this hit. She’d had the urge to throw a bar of soap at him so he’d get out.


Ernest, like he was sorry, like he was wrong, said, “It would save me from you.”  And then he left.


The sand is hard under her body. Her legs ache. Inside her chest is a pain like something belongs there.


How do people love one another? Max pretends she’s the ocean reaching for the shore. No one is on the beach. She imagines it’s summer. She sees kids and adults throwing themselves at the waves, diving in them, turning their backs to them. The waves just take it and come back for more.


They never stop.