Madison Smartt Bell Bell, Madison Smartt - Essay

T. Coraghessan Boyle


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Madison Smartt Bell 1957–

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Bell's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 41.

In his novels and short stories Bell has depicted sordid, urban underworlds of drugs, violence, and weird pathologies. His fiction is usually set in New York City and peopled by uprooted Southerners, although the milieus of his later work have ranged from his native, rural American South to London and Haiti. Bell is sometimes connected to the Southern literary tradition because of his heritage and his concern with the sociological motivations of misfits and outcasts. While he has been faulted for using contrived literary devices, trendy subject matter, and occasionally flat characterizations, Bell possesses an imaginative depth, considerable narrative skills, and an evocative style uniquely his own. Andy Solomon has called Bell "one of our most prolific and precocious talents," adding that his "unique wedding of intelligence and craft to a signature angle of vision … marks him as one of our more courageous and large-souled talents as well."

Biographical Information

Born August 1, 1957, in Nashville, Tennessee, Bell was raised on his family's farm in Williamson County. He attended Princeton University, where he won several literary prizes for fiction writing and received a summa cum laude B.A. degree in English literature in 1979; he earned a master's degree from Hollins College in 1981. Employed by film and publishing enterprises during his college days, Bell read manuscript and wrote copy for Berkley Publishing Corporation in New York upon graduation from Hollins until 1983, when he published his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble. In 1984 he accepted an assistant professorship in English at Goucher College, where he wrote two novels, Waiting for the Ending of the World (1985) and Straight Cut (1986). During the academic year 1987–88, Bell participated in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and finished writing the short story collection Zero db and Other Stories (1987) and the novel The Year of Silence (1987). After returning to his position at Goucher, Bell attended the 1989 Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, which yielded the novel Soldier's Joy (1989). During the 1990s Bell expanded his oeuvre with the publication of another short story collection, Barking Man and Other Stories (1990), and three novels, Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), and All Souls' Rising (1995), which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Major Works

The Washington Square Ensemble is a fast-paced and occasionally violent portrait of the New York City heroin trade. Resembling a jazz composition in its stream-of-consciousness narration by five alternating voices, the novel chronicles one day in the lives of drug dealer Johnny B. Goode and his associates. Waiting for the End of the World concerns a group of social misfits who plot to destroy Times Square with a homemade nuclear device, while Straight Cut, a highbrow thriller, focuses on a pair of degenerate New York film-makers, Tracy Bateman and Kevin Carter, caught up in a financially lucrative international drug deal, which involves Carter's duped, estranged wife, Lauren, and a double-crossed Bateman. The Year of Silence centers on the suicide of a young Manhattan illustrator, Marian, whose tale is recounted by those who knew her at different times in her life. Soldier's Joy, Bell's first novel set entirely in the South, relates the story of Thomas Laidlaw, who is white, and his childhood friend Rodney Redmon, who is black. Both men are freshly turned-out Vietnam War veterans trying to sort out their lives in their native Tennessee, but they instead find themselves embroiled in a conflict with the Ku Klux Klan. Doctor Sleep, billed as a thinking-man's thriller and set in London, concerns a practicing American hypnotherapist and recovered heroin addict whose insomnia leads him into some freakish encounters while employed by Scotland Yard. Save Me, Joe Louis is an episodic novel about two grifting and doomed drifters: Macrea, a young petty thief, and Charlie, an older psychopath. The novel recounts their violent, criminal escapades from New York through Baltimore to Tennessee and South Carolina. All Souls' Rising, an historical novel, tells of the brutal and grisly Haitian slave revolt of 1791 as seen through the eyes of several characters. Bell's short story collections display his virtuosity in the form, most notably in "Holding Together" from Barking Dog, in which a wise laboratory mouse tries to find solace from the indignities of science in the I Ching.

Critical Reception

Bell's novels and short stories generally have received enthusiastic critical acclaim, although some reviewers have wondered why, as did Sven Birkerts who emphatically pronounced, "Bell's every sentence is not a joy." Most critics have commented on "his conspicuous sympathy for the alienated and the bruised," as Solomon has stated, but Roberta Silman has noted that Bell displays "an uncanny understanding of the way many people must struggle to live." While David Montrose and others have suggested that some of Bell's characters were "cardboard-flat and forgettable," Alan Davis has remarked that Bell's "sense of character and place is always sure-handed." Some critics, like Davis, have preferred "the compressed dazzle" of Bell's short fiction; Paul D. McCarthy has called his short stories "a splendid testament to Bell's superb narrative, stylistic gifts and passionate humanity." Although Bell has earned the reputation of "one of the South's most promising young writers," as Greg Johnson observed, others have questioned the regional character of Bell's work. Dwight Garner has indicated the significance of All Souls' Rising to Bell's literary development: "In earlier novels … Bell demonstrated that he was a young American novelist of the first rank. All Souls' Rising, however, puts him on another level as an artist."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Washington Square Ensemble (novel) 1983
History of the Owen Graduate School of Management (nonfiction) 1985
Waiting for the End of the World (novel) 1985
Straight Cut (novel) 1986
The Year of Silence (novel) 1987
Zero db and Other Stories (short stories) 1987
Soldier's Joy (novel) 1989
Barking Man and Other Stories (short stories) 1990
Doctor Sleep (novel) 1991
Save Me, Joe Louis (novel) 1993
All Souls' Rising (novel) 1995

Jack Fuller (review date 22 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Silence' Is Golden," in Chicago Tribune Books, November 22, 1987, p. 9.

[In the positive review below, Fuller focuses on the structure of The Year of Silence.]

A promising but elusive young woman, admired for all the usual reasons, dies of an overdose in Manhattan. Whether the story of this sadly ordinary event comes to anything depends on how the writer decides to tell it.

He can make it a melodrama or a cocaine thriller. He can find in it a tragedy of innocence or the embodiment of the emptiness of existence. He can lapse into cynical black humor or succumb to the sentimentality of despair. Or if he is good enough, he can make something...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Mark Royden Winchell (review date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Other Voices, Other Runes," in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCII, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. xliii-xliv.

[In the following excerpt, Winchell focuses on Bell's role as author of The Washington Square Ensemble.]

The novelist starts out as God, creating a world that he knows and controls. In deciding how to use his powers, he makes a metaphysical choice. With the rise of modernism and the more recent emergence of that hybrid known as postmodernism, we have seen the demise of the author-as-God. All notable exceptions conceded, the dominant point of view in twentieth-century fiction has been limited and unreliable. In Ron Loewinsohn's Magnetic Field(s) and Madison...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Greg Johnson (review date 4 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Numbed Vietnam Vets Turn to the Soil," in Chicago Tribune Books, June 4, 1989, sec. 14, p. 5.

[In the following review, Johnson faults the "moribund" characterization and "somnolent" pacing of Soldier's Joy, but concludes that "the determination and risk-taking evident in Soldier's Joy are likely to bear fruit in [Bell's] future work."]

Madison Smartt Bell has earned a reputation as one of the South's most promising young writers. In four previous novels and one story collection, he has written skillfully about the Northeast—especially New York City and urban New Jersey—as well as his native South.

His first novel,...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Rick DeMarinis (review date 8 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Hero Is a Mouse," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 95, April 8, 1990, p. 11.

[In the following review, DeMarinis analyzes the themes of pain and search-and-rescue in Barking Man.]

A collection of short stories that work well together has the effect of standing the reader in a world he recognizes but is no longer on comfortably familiar terms with. Barking Man, Madison Smartt Bell's second collection of stories and seventh book, satisfies the standard with unwavering compassion. The world these 10 stories conjure is a shifty, dangerous place, requiring of its inhabitants small acts of daily heroism. That these heroic deeds sometimes resemble...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)

Patrick McGrath (review date 15 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Misfits and Outcasts," in Washington Post Book World, April 15, 1990, pp. 7-8.

[In the mixed review below, McGrath ponders the themes of abuse and vulnerability in Barking Man, suggesting that "the events that befall Bell's misfits and outcasts lack significant power in either existential or literary terms."]

Madison Smartt Bell has been publishing fiction at a very smart clip since 1983—five novels and two collections in a mere seven years. In much of that work he has depicted characters both urban and rural whose lives are marked by poverty, failure, madness and futility.

Most of the stories in Barking Man work the same...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)

Paul D. McCarthy (review date 30 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pounding Out the Dents," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 30, 1990, p. 12.

[Below, McCarthy considers the moral progression of the stories in Barking Man, calling the collection "a splendid testament to Bell's superb narrative, stylistic gifts and passionate humanity."]

Light, shadows and light. That is the moral progression that novelist Madison Smartt Bell develops in the 10 tales of Barking Man and Other Stories, his haunting, protean, compassionate second collection.

Through the five stories that comprise Part I, the characters, human and nonhuman—the narrator of the opening story, "Holding Together," is a...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Elizabeth Tallent (review date 6 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hypnotist, Heal Thyself," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 96, January 6, 1991, p. 11.

[In the review below, Tallent discusses the interplay of the ordinary with the extraordinary in Doctor Sleep.]

A harrowing wakefulness sets the tone for Madison Smartt Bell's sixth novel. Adrian Strother is an American living in London, a recovered heroin addict and practicing hypnotherapist who is expertly gentle with his clientele of insomniacs and phobics; on eight hours a night, he'd make quite a trustworthy narrator. He has the tolerant cool that is characteristic of Mr. Bell's protagonists, an observant detachment backed, in his case, by his prowess in the...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Gabrielle Donnelly (review date 20 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Wake of Dr. Strother," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 20, 1991, p. 8.

[In the following review, Donnelly admires the unreal, dreamlike narrative and atmosphere of Doctor Sleep.]

To say that an air of unreality hangs over a book is not usually a compliment. To say it about Doctor Sleep, the new novel by Madison Smartt Bell, is to describe one of its greatest strengths.

Let's start with the title. Adrian Strother is not a doctor—although people persist in addressing him as one—but a hypnotherapist: as for the sleep, he spends most of the long weekend of the book trying to break a bout of insomnia which has for...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Mary Louise Weaks and Madison Smartt Bell (interview date August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Madison Smartt Bell, in Southern Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 1-12.

[In the following interview, which originally took place in August, 1992, Weaks questioned Bell about the southernness of his fiction, the influence of the Fugitives/Agrarians on his work, and the future of southern literature.]

[Mary Louise Weaks:] You've told me several times that you consider yourself a southern writer, yet so many places and people that you create are alien to southerners.

[Madison Smartt Bell:] Well, maybe not so much as you think. I didn't write in southern settings for a long time because I've read so much work by...

(The entire section is 5433 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Madison Smartt Bell/Debra Spark," in his American Energies: Essays on Fiction, Morrow & Co., 1992, pp. 380-85.

[In the excerpt below, Birkerts detects a "moviemaking" quality about Straight Cut, remarking: "I have no problem with that. Entertainment is entertainment. What bothers me is that the idea of literature got mixed in."]

On the desk in front of me are two books, 20 Under 30: Best Stories by America's New Young Writers, edited by Debra Spark and Straight Cut, a novel by Madison Smartt Bell. The dust jacket of the latter features a cut-in color photograph of a handsome and brooding young man, and the author's biography begins:...

(The entire section is 1209 words.)

Andy Solomon (review date 30 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poised between hell and purgatory: The fiction of Madison Smartt Bell," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 30, 1993, p. 6.

[In the review below, Solomon focuses on the detailed descriptions and realistic characters of Save Me, Joe Louis, especially "Bell's sharp insights into, and extraordinary compassion for, his outcast protagonists."]

The seven novels and two story collections that comprise the oeuvre of Madison Smartt Bell at age 35 make him one of our most prolific and precocious talents. What grows clearer with each book is Bell's unique wedding of intelligence and craft to a signature angle of vision that marks him as one of our more courageous and...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

Harry Crews (review date 20 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Couple of Predators," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 98, June 20, 1993, p. 9.

[In the positive review below, Crews commends the true-to-life narrative and characterization in Save Me, Joe Louis, observing that Bell is "an exceptional novelist … [capable] of occasionally turning a miracle."]

Madison Smartt Bell has written an episodic novel of two grifters and drifters, Charlie and Macrae, whose only thought seems to be to drink and dope a bit today and tomorrow. After tomorrow, they'll turn their attention toward relieving an unsuspecting citizen of enough money so they can drink and dope a bit one more time. Always one more time. Charlie,...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

Garry Abrams (review date 11 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bad, Bad Buddies," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 11, 1993, p. 7.

[In the following review, Abrams offers a favorable assessment of Save Me, Joe Louis.]

When two guys with criminal tendencies go skidding across the country like a souped-up car with bad brakes and a bald set of tires, bad things are bound to happen. Talk about that American pastime, random violence—Save Me, Joe Louis has got it: shotgun killings, baseball-bat mayhem and what may be the only armed robbery ever committed to save a captured fox. It is the perfect vehicle for a sociopathic buddy movie—Thelma and Louise without the extenuating circumstances.


(The entire section is 765 words.)

John Vernon (review date 29 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Black Face of Freedom," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 100, October 29, 1995, p. 12.

[In the review below, Vernon appraises All Souls' Rising, concluding that there "are flaws, but flaws dwarfed by a powerful and intelligent novel."]

Haiti's 18th-century slave rebellion—an object lesson for slave owners in the United States—played itself out against the unfolding revolution in the colony's mother country, France. The result was a complex struggle among Haitian groups trying to align themselves with a shifting template 5,000 miles away with each arriving wave of rumor and news, loyalties switched, authority changed hands, the last became...

(The entire section is 1573 words.)

Dwight Garner (review date 5 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nothing to Lose But Their Chains," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXV, No. 45, November 5, 1995, p. 4.

[Below, Garner marvels at the erudition and literary skill of All Souls' Rising, finding that Bell's "gifts have never been more fully on display."]

Madison Smartt Bell's sprawling and masterful new novel, about political and racial turmoil in French colonial Haiti during the late 18th century, is not for the squeamish. The book's first scene is an exacting depiction of the crucifixion of a black female slave by a wealthy French landowner. That's merely a primer. In the ensuing 200 pages or so, up until about the novel's midway point, we learn...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Diane Roberts (review date 26 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stature of Bell Is Uplifted in Gothic 'All Souls' Rising,'" in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 26, 1995, p. K11.

[In the following review, Roberts compares All Soul's Rising to William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, noting that Bell's novel "suffers only a little in comparison."]

Madison Smartt Bell is a Southerner, a Tennessean, but he's not what you'd call a Southern writer. Since 1987, he has produced nine books, novels and short story collections, occasionally set in the South, occasionally peopled with deracinated Southerners in the big cities of the North, often more about the weird pathologies of late 20th-century American life...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Davis, Alan. A review of Save Me, Joe Louis. The Hudson Review 47, No. 1 (Spring 1994); 145-46.

Claims that "this baggy novel often reads more like a true-crime study than like fiction."

Johnson, George. A review of Straight Cut. The New York Times Book Review 92 (27 December 1987): 24.

Brief, positive notice.

Mesic, Penelope. "The Fire That Time." Chicago Tribune (22 October 1995): sec. 14, pp. 1, 11.

Considers the violence and racial themes in All Souls' Rising, observing...

(The entire section is 295 words.)