Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
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 generosity toward one another. One also has to admire the semiliterate narrator of one of Bell’s funniest stories, “The Naked Lady,” from Zero db, and Other Stories. Although he enjoys shooting rats and watching barroom brawls, this character is essentially a kindly soul, who worries about his roommate’s career as a sculptor and even lets their rat-eating snake warm itself in his bed. Even if we have lost our faith in the myths that once sustained us, Bell believes that we can still find meaning in our willingness to connect with one another.
In “Irene,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, a young girl becomes the central reality in the narrator’s life. After experiencing some personal disappointments, the narrator moves into a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, hoping that in isolation he will turn into a creative genius. In fact, however, he sinks into apathy. One night his neighbors invite him to join them on their steps, and he is so struck by the beauty of a twelve-year-old girl named Irene that he cannot get her out of his mind. He even fantasizes about marrying her. On one occasion, when he sees her crying, he takes her into his apartment until she calms down. The narrator finally pulls himself together, gets a job, and moves away, but he can never forget Irene. He only hopes that she has some recollection of him. Though he now knows that his fantasies of instantaneous success and marriage to Irene will never be realized, the narrator has found himself by connecting with another human being.
“Today Is a Good Day to Die”
“Today Is a Good Day to Die,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, is an initiation story. The protagonist is a young army lieutenant, who in 1875 has been assigned to General George A. Custer’s unit at Fort Robinson as an observer. That is also his function in terms of the story. Though he is a West Point graduate, the lieutenant has a great deal to learn about war and even more to learn about this conflict. His initiation begins when a whiskey trader tries to sell him a leather-like object that was once a squaw’s breast. The falsity of the trader’s justification, that Native Americans are not human beings, becomes clear to the lieutenant when one saves him from death in the snow. While they sit together beside the fire, the Native American draws a sketch to show the lieutenant how Custer’s men massacred unarmed Native American women and children. Though he does fight at the Little Bighorn, the lieutenant later deserts and starts walking toward the mountains, discarding his uniform and then destroying his watch. His final words, which urge a buzzard to eat of his body, echo the Eucharist, suggesting that he sees his death as expiation for the sins of his race. The lieutenant is no longer an observer; he has become a participant in the eternal battle between good and evil.
“Customs of the Country”
One of Bell’s major themes is that one can find goodness and heroism at even the lowest levels of society. The first-person narrator of “Customs of the Country,” from Barking Man, and Other Stories, is a reformed drug addict. While she was in the throes of withdrawal, she became irritated with her little boy Davey and threw him across the room, breaking his leg. As a result, he was taken away from her. Ever since, her one goal has been to get Davey back. She is now free of drugs, visits Davey whenever she can, and with her earnings as a waitress has hired a lawyer and fixed up her apartment for a social worker’s approval. However, the authorities’ supposed “evaluation” is a fraud; they have long since decided to give Davey to foster parents. In the end, the narrator shows herself to be far more compassionate than the bureaucrats. When she hears the man next door beating his wife even more viciously than usual, she incapacitates him with a skillet and then offers to take the wife along with her. The wife does not leave; as the narrator says, she is stuck in her rut. Ironically, in her refusal to take chances, the wife is no different from the bureaucrats. By contrast, in the narrator the reader sees true heroism.
Unlike most of Bell’s short fiction, “Dragon’s Seed,” from Barking Man, and Other Stories, ends in poetic justice. Mackie Loudon, an elderly sculptor, lives in a decaying house, alone except for her demons. After she discovers that a boy she has befriended, who stays next door with a man called Gil, is a kidnap victim in the hands of a child pornographer, Mackie informs the police. However, Gil has no difficulty convincing them that Mackie is crazy. Later, he tells her that he has disposed of the boy and then pushes her off an embankment. Mackie ends up in the hospital. After she is released the following spring, Mackie breaks into Gil’s place, sets him on fire, and burns down the house. Bell’s use of mythology makes the story even more effective. The reader first sees Mackie carving a head of Medusa, the Gorgon who turned men to stone; later she shapes that head into her own likeness, and as Medusa, kills Gil. The dragon’s teeth sowed by the Greek hero Jason emerged as fighting men; similarly, when Mackie returns, her memories of the boy, whose name was Jason, give her the strength to effect retribution.
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