A drug-addicted doctor, a dying father, and a cantankerous angel constitute a less than holy trinity. Carl is an impaired physician who is hooked on drugs. He happens to have a guiding angel following him around, but she is no guardian. Instead, she is moody and provides no protection. She offers warnings and advice. Carl met his angel when he was six years old. After being stung by wasps and experiencing an allergic reaction, she didn't lift a finger (or wing) to help him.

The angel is prescient. She can foretell who will grow up naughty or beneficent. She knows when a person will die. She tells Carl that not everyone has an angel. Only those individuals destined for greatness get an angel, but some people choose not to heed the suggestions of their spiritual attendants.

Carl is a pediatrician. He cheated in medical school and on his certifying examination but is pleased with his choice of careers: "I make my living praising the beauty of well children. I love babies and I love ketamine" (p121). His father is dying from metastatic lung cancer. Their relationship is terrible. To make matters worse, Carl cannot stomach sick adults.

His three pregnant sisters implore Carl to care for their father after discharge from the hospital. Carl reluctantly leaves San Francisco and heads to Florida. He takes his father to chemotherapy sessions, but the oncologist thinks it's time to stop further treatment. Carl administers painkillers to his dad and frequently consumes some of the prescribed morphine and Percocet for his own pleasure. The two men hardly speak to each other.

Carl's angel repeatedly implores him to reach out to the dying man. She knows that emotional and physical connection will heal both men. Carl's father longs for a storm but the weather won't deliver his wish. One night, Carl stages rainfall with the aid of the garden hose. He rests his head against his dad's chest, and they fall asleep. When morning arrives, Carl awakens and discovers that his father died during the night. The angel is weeping in the room.


Resistance - to disease, family, feelings, and reality - plays a large role in a story that mingles medical realism and surrealism. Some of the weighty matters addressed include the care of a dying parent, the relief of pain, spirituality, and the problem of the impaired physician. The contrast between medical specialties (pediatrics and oncology) is interesting.

Think about the similarities and the differences between the doctor and the angel in this story. Both creatures are seriously flawed. Each is capable of a miracle. The greatest acts that an angel and a human being can perform turn out to be the simplest ones - acts of kindness.

Primary Source

A Better Angel (pp 110-133)


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



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