When author Jodi Angel was a tomboyish girl, she would pedal her bike through her hometown of Red Bluff alongside her slightly older, similarly adventure-seeking male cousins. Like them, she went barefoot and shirtless.
"My mom used to get really mad," said Angel, author of the acclaimed new collection of short stories, "You Only Get Letters From Jail," in which she writes from the perspectives of teenage boys. "She said, 'You have to ride your bike with your shirt on.' "
Angel did not understand her mother's objections. She and her cousins were "just like a group of boys," she said. On hot days, "everyone was barefoot and dirty and wearing nothing but a pair of shorts."The boys did not censor themselves just because a girl was present.
Those boys "just kind of fell away after about the time I was 9, just through life going on," said Angel, now 42 and a longtime Sacramentan. "Up until 9, though, they were my huge influence."
Angel never yearned to be a boy, she said, and today she has a female partner and more female than male friends. But the daring spirit of the boys she grew up with remains lively in her memory.
"They'd have little racetracks and motorcycles, and they did dangerous things," Angel said amid cracks of billiard balls during an interview last week at Sacramento's Round Corner Tavern. "Those things were more fun than the things girls were supposed to do."
Angel taps her knowledge of rough-hewn, small-town boyhood, and the time period in which she gained it, in "Letters From Jail" (Tin House, $14.95, 288 pages).
A woman writing in first-person from a teenage male point of view is still unusual, and "Letters From Jail" has won national attention.
The New York Times deemed Angel's collection, released last month, "moving" and "accomplished." Stories from "Letters From Jail" have been excerpted by Esquire magazine and other publications.
Angel's 1970s and '80s teens stink of Doritos and beer, and have progressed from riding bicycles to driving or lusting after muscle cars. Their futures often are hazy, and their curiosity and boredom can lead to harsh or even horrific situations for which they are not emotionally prepared.
In "A Good Deuce," a boy whose mother has just died sneaks into a bar, gets drunk and flirts with a grown woman. In "Snuff," a teen who just watched a supposed "snuff film" at a friend's house calls his sister to pick him up. While driving home, they hit a deer. The dying animal reminds him of the girl in the film.
"I write about things that are darker and more complex because I am more interested in reading those things," Angel said. "I write about things I would want to read about."
Tattooed and clad in jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers, Angel looks tough until she smiles. That smile is small, kidlike, immediately ingratiating.
Her graceful, easy manner suits someone who travels through different circles. The young Red Bluff ruffian was also a straight-A student. The grown-up Angel, who moved to Sacramento as a teen, has a master's degree in English from UC Davis. She teaches writing at Sacramento City College and has a 21-year-old daughter, Shelby, who is an apprentice baker in Germany.
Angel's also well-known enough at the Round Corner, a popular midtown dive bar, that when she arrives for an interview, the bartender asks where she's been.
"That's how much of a fixture I am," Angel said with a laugh.
But it's her first time here in a year and a half, and she's drinking ice water.
Angel's first story collection, 2005's "The History of Vegas" also featured adolescent narrators male and female in challenging circumstances. "Vegas" drew praise but also some criticism that "the stories were really dark," Angel said.
She tried to tone down the darkness in subsequent stories. But the softer tales "were nothing like me they were nothing like I wanted to write," Angel said. "They sounded horrible. I finally started writing what I wanted to write and the first stories were those teenage boys, and I just kept with it. That was the voice that took over."
That voice is active and highly descriptive, yet never anxious nor panicked. In "Letters From Jail," things look grim. But they rarely look hopeless.
"She is writing these stories that are quiet and fraught with a peril that doesn't ever come to any über-dramatic pinnacle," said Sacramento author Christian Kiefer, who studied at UC Davis at the same time as Angel. "But for the reader, they just burn a hole right through your heart."
The burn comes from Angel's profound powers of description, which allow a reader to taste a beer that's gone warm during a lakeside outing, smell the burned rubber after a hot rod brakes too quickly or feel the enveloping flesh of an overweight barfly who provides unexpected comfort to the boy who lost his mother.
"One thing that is primarily important to me is to see setting as character," Angel said. "A lot of our sensory detail comes through visual stimuli. It's easy for writers to constantly make visual metaphors. But I like to go for the other senses that are far more accurate in placing a reader in a scene. Which is sense of smell. Which is how things sound."
"Letters" also establishes powerful senses of time and place. Its teenagers' restlessness rings true partly because the characters exist decades before the Internet and cellphones provided constant distraction.
Entertainment in their rural town (based on Red Bluff) often consists of joy rides, with the Eagles or Black Sabbath playing on the stereo.
"When I was young, my mom listened to all that music the Eagles and 'Frampton Comes Alive,' " Angel said. "I think I romanticize that time."
There was more freedom for youngsters to ride their bikes around town, even if the girls had to wear shirts.
"I can't imagine an 8-year-old riding their bike around midtown these days," Angel said. "It was a lot looser then in a lot of ways, so it's liberating to write about that time."
That time was not without tragedy for Angel and her family. Angel's parents divorced when she was 1. Her mother remarried, and had two more daughters, but Angel's stepfather died in an automobile accident when she was 9.
Angel is close to her mother, Jan, whom she admires for raising three young girls by working as a secretary in Red Bluff. She also has fond memories of her salesman dad, Jim, letting her skip school to go fishing with him.
Neither sounds much like the parents of "Letters From Jail," who are checked-out, inappropriate or drunk when present at all.
"I don't set out to deliberately write absentee parents," Angel said.
"It is sort of like the 'Peanuts' characters the parents are on the periphery. They are not a part of that kid world. Except in reality, which this fiction reflects, when you don't have parents present, it's not like everybody gets together like in the 'Peanuts' cartoon and makes their own Thanksgiving. They go set something on fire."
Angel graduated from Casa Roble High School, after her mother moved the family to Sacramento when she took a new job. Angel started and then quickly dropped out of college in Southern California. She returned to Sacramento, married, had her daughter, divorced.
She went back to school, studying fiction writing at UC Davis with Pam Houston, her professor and mentor, earning a master's in 2003. She has not been especially prolific, Angel acknowledged, but she said she always delivers when there's a deadline involved.
She would write more, but there's teaching to do literature and composition at City College and the fiction-writing workshops she offers on occasion and TV to watch. Angel and her partner of four years, Laura Casey, recently blazed through Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black."
"I do not have a structured, rigorous writing schedule, which I probably should," Angel said with a smile. "I am thinking about getting one."
She's making progress on her current project, though a novel that will involve teenagers but also (fleshed-out) adult characters.
Make that two current projects. Early this year, Angel bought her first muscle car: a bondo-ridden 1969 Chevy Nova. As she describes the improvements she's made to the car, she sounds like one of her fictional teen gearheads: she had a "383 stroker" engine installed, and put in a "Holley 670 Street Avenger carburetor" herself.
"I wanted a muscle car when I was 15," Angel said. "And I just decided I'd reached a point in my life where I am going to get a damn muscle car."
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.