In his essay “Less Is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story,” Madison Smartt Bell classifies himself as a traditional writer, one who believes that only by observing the most minute details can one arrive at universal truths. Although Bell’s methods are traditional, his characters are the products of contemporary society. Whether they live in the rural South or in the urban Northeast, they are lonely, alienated figures without a clear sense of purpose. Their world is marked by cruelty, violence, and death, all of which Bell describes in harrowing detail. In “Triptych I,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, gruesome descriptions of hog butchering frame the central incident, a human death in which the victim’s arm is charred on a hot stove burner. Here and elsewhere, Bell uses structure to remind his readers that they are animals, too, not much different from the hogs, rats, and cockroaches that they kill.
However, human beings can rise above their animal nature. Some of Bell’s characters act on principle. The dog trainer in “Black and Tan,” from Barking Man, and Other Stories, stops working with boys because he has doubts about his methods; the waitress in “Monkey Park,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, will not leave her husband even though she loves another man. Other characters are compassionate. In “Move on Up,” from Barking Man, and Other Stories, homeless people display a touching...
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