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."
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.
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...
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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.
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."
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 new, reveal things we hadn't known before.
For Madison Smartt Bell in his latest book, The Year of Silence, the death is like a crystal, a transparent, sharp-edged fact that refracts all light and separates the colors. The story becomes many stories, a collection, each of them in its own way pure and whole.
The most trivial way to describe Bell's approach is to say that every chapter examines the death of the young woman known as Marian from a different point of view: that of her lover, her drug connection, the street freak she gives money to, the cop who is called to the scene.
This technique leaves obscure the forces that propel Marian to her death. The voices are confused; none of them can tell us what we want to know about the meaning of Marian's life and death.
Even when, midway through the book, she speaks to us, she does not know herself. Yet there is no sense of the author's having forsaken the real work of fiction, its justification and its truth. The Year of Silence is not empty. It is ambiguous but plentiful, as full and yet unresolved as life.
In a deeper sense, the book opens out beyond the confines of Marian and those with whom she comes in contact.
Without once becoming cynical, Bell's stories give a view of the modern city more uncompromising than most of the more straightforward urban narratives I have read. It is Hugh Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn with the brutality brought down to a scale that anyone can identify with. It is not minimalist, but it is an example of how less can be more.
Bell's restraint with violence and squalor magnifies the effect, the power to reshape the way we see the world.
And it is a measure of the strength of Bell's book that, although it is a collection of fragments, we never once feel that, by calling it a novel, the publishers deceived us. Instead, we are forced to examine whether the deception is really in those other works called novels that in effect say, "Here is the story. Here is all of it. It happened just this way."
The irony of conventional taste and marketing is that The Year of Silence will in all likelihood be a modest book, read principally by other writers and by that undaunted band of pure readers who are willing to take a chance.
But while the story of Marian's death does not make for a big book in length or publicity, it is capable of rewarding a very wide audience.
Anyone who values grace in language, elegance of structure and the magic of finding meaning in literature's subtle ordering of fact will find in The Year of Silence a book that is worth the price of a dozen others that, for whatever reasons of enterprise, are thrust before the public as the best that American publishing sells.
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 Smart Bell's The Washington Square Ensemble we find two current examples of this trend. Both novels use multiple narration to convey the elusiveness of reality, but they ultimately make very different epistemological statements….
In Bell's The Washington Square Ensemble we are far removed from the intellectual games that dominate Ron Loewinsohn's novel. Bell's characters do not live in a model-train village, but in New York City. They make their living dealing in heroin and, for the most part, speculate only about their own lives. They also have voices. Bell has his characters speak for themselves in distinctive rhythms and cadences. Although they all have different perspectives, the reality that they apprehend is not meant to be the product of anyone's imagination. When they seek to escape that reality, it is through such normal opiates as booze, drugs, and religion.
Bell's protagonist is Johnny Dellacroce, a free-lance hood who smokes Kools, calls himself Johnny B. Goode, and generally seeks to emulate Norman Mailer's paradigm of the white negro. Johnny's lieutenants include a former hit man who is called Holy Mother because of his childhood piety, a gentle seven-foot Black Muslim named Yusuf Ali, and a voodoo-crazed Puerto Rican known as Santa Barbara. The other major character is an alcoholic jazz artist whom Johnny has dubbed Porco Miserio (in his role as name-giver Johnny is an American Adam). Although each of these characters takes his turn in telling the story (toward the end they are assisted by dialogues between two cops), we are led to believe that they are acting under the spell of Porco's magic storytelling rock. This entails what Wayne Boom might call the "implied author."
Topical references to recent gang wars, an extended account of the Attica uprising, and convincing local geography help to ground The Washington Square Ensemble in time and place. This novel, however, is intended to be more than another tale of urban depravity. Owing to their belief in the supernatural, Bell's characters sometimes resemble big-city versions of the God-haunted freaks of Flannery O'Connor (like O'Connor's The Misfit, Holy Mother is a potential saint turned pathological killer). By the end of the novel even the hard-boiled Johnny B. has experienced a moral education. When Yusuf Ali and Santa Barbara risk their own safety to rescue him from danger, they violate Johnny's rules and save his life.
In Robert Penn Warren's "Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart" God is described as a magnet who gives shape to the iron filings of our lives. For Ron Loewinsohn there is no single magnet—only many possible magnetic field(s). What saves us from solipsism is those moments when our fields intersect (thus eliminating the optional s). Such moments occur considerably more frequently in Madison Smartt Bell's novel because he sees the world not as colliding fields of perception but as a place as solid and mysterious as a story-telling rock.
The Washington Square Ensemble (novel) 1983History of the Owen Graduate School of Management (nonfiction) 1985Waiting for the End of the World (novel) 1985Straight Cut (novel) 1986The Year of Silence (novel) 1987Zero db and Other Stories (short stories) 1987Soldier's Joy (novel) 1989Barking Man and Other Stories (short stories) 1990Doctor Sleep (novel) 1991Save Me, Joe Louis (novel) 1993All Souls' Rising (novel) 1995
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, Washington Square, was a harrowing tale of New York's drug underworld, while Waiting for the End of the World focused on a disturbed group of men—including a drug dealer and a Vietnam veteran—who plot to blow up Times Square. The stories collected in Zero db clearly illustrated Bell's dual focus—neo-Faulknerian tales of race relations in a declining South appearing alongside briskly paced stories set in New York, Newark and Hoboken.
It is clear that Bell's allegiance is still divided between the urban Northeast and his Southern heritage. His new novel, Soldier's Joy, is an unsatisfying return to Southern soil.
Lengthy and slow-paced, Soldier's Joy focuses on Thomas Laidlaw, a Vietnam veteran who returns from the war to sort out his life on a Tennessee farm, and Rodney Redmon, a black man who served alongside Laidlaw and has spent time in prison on a trumped-up charge. Redmon also ends up in the South, almost penniless, and takes a demeaning warehouse job.
Because Bell's previous novels have been so fast-paced, one is puzzled and then annoyed by this book's somnolent pace. The first 100 pages are devoted to Laidlaw's life on the farm, which consists of little more than his walking through woods and pastures, picking his banjo and keeping his mind as blank as possible. He prefers doing nothing at all, and the novel follows his every move as he does it.
At least the second section, which focuses on Redmon, contains some dramatic conflict, since Redmon has a temper and often clashes with his white fellow employees. But his inner life is nearly as moribund as Laidlaw's: "The time had passed slowly, though nothing much had happened in it that seemed worth remembering now."
Evidently Bell is attempting to portray the numbing aftereffects of the war upon his two heroes. But by detailing the ordinary physical routine of their daily lives and giving the reader almost nothing of their past experiences and emotions, he has produced a turgid novel whose characters never manage to come to life.
Laidlaw's sections are particularly wearing, since his attitude toward his war experience is pseudo-stoic. The writing here often suggests Hemingway on a bad day, as when Laidlaw muses upon "his spell in the Mekong Delta, where he had not had a pleasant time."
We are halfway through the novel before Laidlaw and Redmon find one another. The remaining chapters focus on their friendship and the racial hatred that threatens to erupt as a result. Near the end of the book, the two men are pitted against a violent group of Klansmen, a confrontation that serves as a potentially effective analogue to Laidlaw and Redmon's Vietnam experience. But this dramatic scene is too little, too late.
It seems likely that Bell's title is an allusion to William Faulkner's first novel, Soldiers' Pay, for some of Bell's short stories show Faulkner's influence. Yet the allusion may be more meaningful than Bell intended, for Soldiers' Pay, which deals with the after-effects of World War I upon another moribund "hero," is one of Faulkner's most contrived and least convincing works.
Only 32, Madison Smartt Bell is clearly still struggling to find his voice. This novel and certain of his short stories suggest that he does best when he avoids Southern settings and slicks to what he knows best. (Bell was a schoolboy during the Vietnam conflict). Despite this disappointing performance, however, the determination and risk-taking evident in Soldier's Joy are likely to bear fruit in his future work.
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 madness or criminal mischief does not compromise their necessity or moral authenticity. If anything, they are all the more laudable because the odds for success are always dismally low. In each case, the reader finds himself cheering for these outgunned characters because Mr. Bell himself cares so deeply about them.
I hesitate to describe the wonderful opening story, "Holding Together", for fear of undermining the gravity of what I've just said. It is a story of heroism and suffering, and of blind injustice. The imprisoned hero is not only subjected to mental torture and physical disfigurement at the "hands" of his fellow prisoners, he also experiences a devastating crisis of belief. His drinking water is laced with insidious, mind-fragmenting drugs and, worse, he gradually comes to realize that he is intended for grievous biological experimentation.
The hero of "Holding Together" is a white mouse. Not your ordinary white mouse—but then who is so knowledgeable about the perception and sensitivity of other creatures as to insist on their ordinariness? This mouse is, rather, an Oriental white mouse who, having committed to memory the entire I Ching, divines his fate by studying the hexagrams revealed by his makeshift yarrow stalks, in hands as skilled as Mr. Bell's, the short story is the most dynamic and flexible of literary forms, and "Holding Together" proves this out. We not only care about this bookish mouse, we suffer his pain and are humbled by his steadfast devotion to his fellow mice and to the values that have made his survival not merely possible but necessary. A story with a more humanistic theme is hard to imagine.
As the stories in Barking Man make plain, survival can be a triumph of the spirit—but it can also be a siege of cruelty. In "Black and Tan," a tobacco farmer suffers, in under two years, the deaths of his wife and his two grown children. When a minister, at the funeral of the man's daughter, tries to console him by saying, "You're surviving. Today's today and then there'll be tomorrow," the farmer replies, "That's right, and it's a curse." Oblivion is preferable to such pain, but the farmer, who has no observable religious views that might see him through his agony, becomes, by pure contrariness and grit, an existential hero who leads a productive and exemplary life, first by breeding dogs and then by turning his home into a shelter for unmanageably delinquent boys.
Pain is the hard stylus that engraves the world of these stories. We see this not only in the duress endured by most of the characters but in the fine line details of their struggles, for which Mr. Bell has a sharp and loving eye. Someone's version of paradise might be the south of France but, like severe sunburn and a beach full of foot bruising pebbles, the French Riviera of "Petit Cachou" is grained with hurt. This Mediterranean vacationland is the stage for a California family's brief descent into purgatory. "Petit Cachou" is an astringent novella in which the lives of utterly dissimilar characters are cleverly braided together in a comedy of adolescent libido and parental dismay. As the expatriate peddler Ton-Ton Detroit, the one character in the story who believes in and respects the treacherous magic of his unpredictable surroundings, reflects, "The world was full of a number of things, many of them possible."
This cautionary proposition can be extended to many of Mr. Bell's stories, subverting and controlling a reality that has lost predictability and definition. In "Dragon's Seed," an impoverished old woman of questionable stability, Mackie Loudon, tries to save a boy from a sadistic child pornographer. Both Mackie and the pornographer live on the crumbling urban fringe, an area indifferently policed and mostly invisible to the selective eye of mainstream society. This isolation provides the setting for a life-and-death struggle that has the moral dimensions of myth.
Many of Mr. Bell's heroes dwell in this disposable outland that exists alongside conspicuous prosperity. Their stories are often about the attempted search and rescue, against impossible odds, of a lost mate or child. In "Move On Up," Mr. Bell puts us squarely on the side of a drifter named Hal, one of society's forgotten members. Such people are not lovable—Mr. Bell is no sentimentalist—but they are observed so acutely and with such brave affection that we suspend our judgment and are compelled to walk the streets in their salvaged shoes. Mr. Bell can convey in a single image—in a park, for example, where "a statue of a man in a three piece suit made an expansive gesture toward the pile of litter at its base"—the inflexibility and blindness of the urban landscape, and in a manner that speaks with the economy of poetry.
The would-be searcher and rescuer in "Finding Natasha" says: "I feel responsible … for everybody…. It's got to be like a long chain of people, see? I take hold of her and she takes hold of somebody else and finally somebody takes hold of you, maybe, and then if every body holds on tight, we all get out of here." This effectively describes the spirit that travels through these admirable stories. It is a spirit that insists there is something in all of us that is still worthy of rescue. And it is what makes Barking Man such a humane and mature book, the work of an important and talented writer.
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 that the "scope of this ambitious narrative is heroic."
A review of The Year of Silence. The New York Times Book Review 94 (5 February 1989): 34.
Notes Bell's understanding of "the way many people must struggle to live."
A review of Soldier's Joy. The New York Times Book Review 95 (8 July 1990): 28.
Brief commendation for Bell's narrative tack.
A review of Barking Man. The New York Times Book Review 96 (2 June 1991): 34.
Sees the collection as "a humane and mature work."
A review of Doctor Sleep. The New York Times Book Review 96 (9 June 1991): 28.
Notes that the novel "once more captures the poignant in the freakish."
A review of Straight Cut. The Observer, No. 10272 (21 August 1988): 41.
Calls Bell "an original mix of radical chic, sleaze and Kierkegaard."
A review of The Year of Silence. The Observer, No. 10300 (12 March 1989): 44.
Finds that Bell "has not lost his knack for sharp language, or his taste for sleaze."
Yardley, Jonathan. A review of The Year of Silence. Washington Post Book World 19, No. 8 (19 February 1989): 12.
Compares the novel's effect to "a little like throwing a stone into a pool and watching the ripples flow outward from the center."
―――――――. A review of Soldier's Joy. Washington Post Book World 20, No. 27 (8 July 1990): 12.
Brief summary of plot.
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 territory, and one begins to wonder why Bell returns so doggedly to the dirt and dinge of existences scraped to the bone. For his approach to his subject matter lacks the engaged analytic vigor that Orwell brought to the down-and-out, and the only Beckettian impulse apparent, the only suggestion, that is, of the derelict as epitome of modern godless man, is contained in the idea that even those who've hit rock-bottom must construct some sort of meaning for their lives. For the most part these stories tend to concentrate on the simple behavioral routines of street life, and in the end the events that befall Bell's misfits and outcasts lack significant power in either existential or literary terms.
"Move On Up" is about a man called Hal. As readers of Bell's novel Waiting for the End of the World, and some of the stories in Zero db, will recall, the author likes to devote many paragraphs to solitary figures walking city streets and encountering empty beer cans and other trash. Hal wanders about downtown Manhattan making a buck here and there unloading trucks. Nothing very much happens. It emerges that he is listlessly looking for a woman called Judith whom he slept with once or twice and who has since probably died as a result of her addiction to crack. In the course of his search he gives Judith's son half his small stash of cash. Then he hits a crack dealer with a bit of metal railing. By the end of the story he has wandered up to Grand Central, and still hasn't established for certain that Judith is dead, and if so, where her body has been taken.
Another story, "Finding Natasha," works the same theme, the fruitless search for a lost woman, in the same mode of conventional third-person realism, and here too the assumption seems to be that it's enough merely to sketch a few days in the life of a loser engaged in a somewhat aimless quest purely for its own sake. The final image, of Natasha slumped on a bench in Washington Square Park with infected needle tracks in her arms, is bleak and stark and arresting. The irony here, that this is what our man has been looking for all along, is as black as it comes; but merely to illustrate the horror feels like little more than an exercise in gratuitous nihilism.
The fiction improves when an attempt is made to suggest not only how but why lives get blighted, why people get trapped in vicious downward spirals, "Sometimes you don't get but one mistake," says the woman who narrates "Customs of the Country," "if the one you pick is bad enough." She has been in a relationship with a minor drug dealer and has become hooked on Dilaudid. When her man is arrested she goes into withdrawal, in the course of which she falls into a rage with her little boy and hurts him badly. The child is taken into foster care, and the mother lives a blameless life for a year in the hope of getting him back. Meanwhile the man in the next apartment is regularly beating his wife.
When the narrator at last realizes she has lost her child for good she goes next door and hits the man hard in the face with a frying pan. She then invites the abused woman to leave town with her, but the woman cannot. "I just didn't know what difference it had made, and chances were it had made none at all," reflects the narrator. This line could be spoken by many of Bell's characters, but here it has real depth and poignance, for here an attempt is made to set the character's misery in the context of the larger social forces shaping her fate. Also, the splicing of the two instances of abuse has solid psychological resonance: It is a telling example of the displacement of guilt, and it imposes on the story a strong formal design.
"Black and Tan" is the nicely handled tale of a tobacco farmer called Peter Jackson who, after losing his family, takes to training both Dobermans and delinquent punks, the latter sent to him by a local judge. Jackson gradually emerges as a fully rounded and enigmatic figure, but the story is finally disappointing. Asked why he has decided to give up his work with the delinquents, Jackson says that "a man is not an animal," and this rather banal truism is all we're left with. "Dragon's Seed" is a gothic tale about an old, mad, woman sculptor called Mackie Loudon who befriends a little boy and who, like the narrator of "Customs of the Country," wreaks violent revenge on an abusive man, the man who'd been sexually exploiting the child for profit.
But these few aside, the stories in Barking Man are unsatisfying. The title story has nothing to commend it—a man begins behaving like a dog for no clear reason and to no clear purpose—and "Petit Cachou," which runs over 60 pages, is the tiresomely dull description of a small set of Americans in the south of France. Almost nothing happens, and much attention is paid to the simplest activities and thought processes of the few thin characters. By the end one has no clear idea why this story needed to be told.
The twin themes of vulnerability and abuse fuel the best work in this collection, and the quirkiest instance of this is the first story, "Holding Together." A small band of Chinese laboratory mice is being subjected to a nasty experimental procedure, probably ingestion of caffeine, and the task facing their leader, our narrator, is how to maintain morale and solidarity. He consults what he can remember of the I Ching, a venerable Oriental philosophy that explains and dignifies the suffering of tiny creatures victimized by a power too vast for them to understand, a power which, in this case, makes the mice turn their violence on one another rather than upon their oppressor. Our narrator contemplates the possibility that the universe may not in fact be ordered according to the wise constructs of the I Ching, but may instead be random, meaningless and chaotic; he wonders if all attempts to find meaning are delusional. "At times I've been tempted to wonder what offense I could possibly have committed to bring such a punishment down on me," he says, and a little later: "What if … every geometric figure of my so carefully constructed memory would mean no more than an idiot's unintended scrawl …"
The predicament of the three little mice, with their arcane trove of inherited wisdom, would seem to stand as a paradigm for many of Bell's characters, who tend to be similarly helpless in the face of fate, similarly prone to constructing meanings where none exist, and similarly inclined to displace their aggression on their fellow-suffers. This is a familiar analysis of the human condition; to render it fresh, and furtively redeem the victims, requires a copious infusion of literary grace and a keen sense of the social determinants of misery, both of which are only intermittently present here.
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 scholarly white mouse—are beaten by life. They suffer, struggle, are defeated, make tragic mistakes, but somehow endure. At their core, they find courage and hope, sometimes even honor. Their inner dignity may get battered, but they pound most of the dents out.
The tone darkens when we enter Part II. Alf, the "Barking Man," educated and highly intelligent, is unable to bear the responsibility of being a human adult, and while he evolves a way of coping with life that has him retreating into canine fantasy, he simultaneously sacrifices one of his most important capacities—being able to love—because that too carries responsibility, of which he wants no part.
Bell's profound compassion and his wise, forgiving vision that avoids contempt and harsh judgment but is never blind to the world's ugliness, are given wondrously varied and eloquent expression in these stories. His voice and style is so natural, so brilliantly authentic and individual, that we immediately enter the mind of the narrator or the world of the characters.
Evidence of Bell's stylistic virtuosity in the face of technical difficulty is the perfect pitch of "Holding Together." In this story of three white mice of superior cultural breeding, sharing the ancestral "Legend of the Voyage from the Orient" and recently bought by a laboratory to be fed an experimental drug, the narrator, a mouse of the Scrivener class, watches with horror as the drug begins to make his companions psychotic. Bringing all of his philosophical resources to bear to hold the three together, the narrator mouse thinks: "Put aside those dreams of owls and snakes, for death must come to all mice finally, in one form or another. No, what I fear far more deeply is chaos." The mind of this credible mouse is the most intellectually refined of the whole collection.
The other stories, though sharing an omniscient point of view, reveal different tones, rhythms and levels of complexity and elegance, as the settings shift from the French Riviera to New York, Alabama, London.
Another dimension of this collection is the powerful recurrence of certain motifs which, compellingly, are always directly or indirectly related to the unifying moral principle.
For example "Finding Natasha" and "Move On Up" are about men looking for women. Stuart, a newly cleaned-up drug addict, wanders through Manhattan and Brooklyn hoping to find Natasha. At one point, he explains to a sympathetic hooker that he feels a survivor's responsibility. If he can help just one person, even Natasha, an almost hopeless junkie, who then can help someone else, perhaps he can precipitate a chain reaction of assistance.
Hal, homeless and unemployed, is seeking Judith's body in "Move On Up" because he suspects she's killed herself in a crack attack, and he wants to bury her with a little dignity.
Both Hal and Stuart are near the bottom materially but they shine spiritually.
The entire extraordinary collection is a splendid testament to Bell's superb narrative, stylistic gifts and passionate humanity.
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 martial arts. But as Doctor Sleep begins, Adrian, his sleeplessness resisting his own mesmeric powers, is treading delicately along an insomniac edge where consciousness dissolves two ways—into manic hallucination or dulled, drifting numbness. Slyly, this "thriller," as its jacket copy has it, shines a speculative light on the shadowy interplay of perception with delusion, dream with reason.
Mr. Bell's prose, which generally moves at a nimble narrative clip, has the habit of rising now and then to set pieces that lyrically detail a particular process. In Soldier's Joy, it is the traditional claw-hammer method of banjo playing; in The Year of Silence, the performance of the 21st Goldberg Variation. In Doctor Sleep, oddly enough, the set pieces include the mercy killing of a white mouse and the dramatic appeal by which a roomful of heroin addicts are stirred to their first wan hope of recovery, as well as a hypnotist's stage trick of anesthetizing a subject before forcing a spike between his jaws: "Just where a horse's bit would go, the space glittered damply against the back of his throat." The incongruousness of this list reflects Mr. Bell's fascination with those times when, as a character in The Year of Silence phrases it, "the extraordinary mixed and blended so thoroughly with the ordinary that it could not be distinguished in the end."
Madison Smartt Bell renders the marginal, the underground, the twisted or seedy with quirky attentiveness. His array of lost souls gets onto the page without the least pre-emptive hint of authorial sympathy, yet he catches the poignant in the freakish. In Doctor Sleep the agoraphobic Eleanor Peavey, "hair done in very early Princess Di and a Sloane Ranger pearl string around her neck," displays under hypnosis the multiple personalities of a foul-mouthed tart and a terrified sexually abused child. Another client appears in a "black leather jacket, naturally, scuffed and cracked, with swastikas and other inspiriting devices daubed on it at random in white house paint." He wants Adrian's expertise—which Adrian can't grant—to help him kick heroin.
The ranker of these lost souls are dangerous. Adrian is followed down slum streets by a pair of punks employed by Karnock, a notorious drug trafficker. Adrian's talents are required by someone called the Dutchman, possibly an Interpol policeman, who is after Karnock; to secure Adrian's cooperation the Dutchman threatens him with deportation, when for Adrian a return to New York would guarantee a return to heroin. Stirred into this mix are the running newspaper accounts of the deaths of little girls, victims of a serial killer, whose portraits keep turning up in the London tabloids and for whom Adrian feels a bleak sort of pity.
Unfortunately, some of the elements in the novel's mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary fail to convince. Adrian's habit of recondite apocryphal quotation is hard to reconcile with his essentially sardonic, street-smart voice, and less comes of his otherworldly flights than from his roundhouse kicks. And Adrian's relationship with his now-you-see-her-now-you-don't girlfriend, Clara, has a hollowness that comes not from her most recent disappearance but from the unconvincing quality of the scenes and exchanges between them.
Soon after Clara leaves him, there appears in Adrian's mailbox the small metal cog that his New York lover, Nicole, used as a signal that she'd be in touch with him. ("Nicole and I had decided to exchange bone rings," Adrian says, explaining his bond with her, "because they had no monetary value and therefore couldn't be converted into scag.") Adrian's last meeting with Nicole in a London hotel, though interestingly wary, ends with him easing her to sleep: "I saw her eyes roll under the lids, looking at something in a dream. I could do that so easily sometimes … to someone else."
Eventually, exhaustion and the surrealistic brutality that he has witnessed bring Adrian to the lowest possible point—death is the biggest Doctor Sleep, and the last remaining piece of consciousness, begging for erasure, is despair. Now someone else, someone as magical as he has aimed to be, is needed to save him. Lofty though his spiritual ambitions have been, it's the value of the ordinary that strikes Adrian as a revelation. Dark though its vision has been, this vivid insomniac jag of a novel ends healingly in sleep.
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 several days been driving him to the edge of sanity. He is a displaced person anyway, a hip young New Yorker who left America to escape a drug addiction, now lives in London's seedy Notting Hill, and during the book travels all over London from the British Museum reading room to a pub in Chelsea to Harrods tea room to Wapping docks to, well, you name the part of London, he goes there.
When he does go out, he is followed—or is he?—by two hoods, one of whom sports a Statue of Liberty haircut; when he stays near his home, he is blasted by the famously jubilant—and potentially violent—Notting Hill carnival, which is going on. His girlfriend has left him; his pet snake refuses to eat the live mouse he has given it for dinner. He has conversations with people who are not there, and occasionally cures wounds by self-hypnosis. Often, he stops to ponder on his real specialty, the Hermetic myth and the writings of 16th-century philosopher Giordano Bruno. It's none of it quite like real life.
It is, on the other hand, an extremely vivid account of the way real life seems when you can't quite handle it. Adrian Strother simply never has the time to catch up with himself. During three days, he finds himself chasing his girlfriend, being chased by a drug trafficker, dealing with a former junkie friend from New York now turned anti-drug evangelist, resurrecting an old love affair, taking on a new client with multiple personalities, performing a magic show, half-killing himself practicing an Oriental kind of self-defense … the list goes on and on, Always, he is remembering he is late for an appointment; always he is side-tracked somehow into another. Throughout the book, his eyes itch; he tries to eat and cannot; he drinks and regrets it; he longs for and dreads the night. As a portrait of a man on the brink, it is remarkable.
The book has not one story line but several, and—inevitably with so much crammed into 304 pages—some are more successful than others. A subplot involving a brutal series of murders is brought to a too-pat ending, but adds a nice frisson of suspense on the way there. The Hermetic myth is invoked constantly and with an air of great significance, but since the myth never is explained precisely, it is difficult to see quite what point is being made by it. On the other hand, Strothers' confusion about why his girlfriend has left him is both realistic and moving; and a story about a woman with multiple personalities packs a real wallop.
If all this is beginning to sound either confusing or depressing, it is neither: It's a rip-roaring good read.
Even the book's great failing, its portrait of the English, ends up by adding to the atmosphere. Bell is an American who clearly has lived in, and loves, London: His portrayal of the city itself—accurate down to the names of the most obscure alleys, the nightmarish rock and bump of the tube trains, the flowers in the churchyard by Putney Bridge—is such as can only be born of deep affection. But its inhabitants, the Londoners, are no more than cartoons. They are called names which no one has been called for years, like Sid, or Nell, and their dialogue—lots of "or-right, Guv" and "you shut your bloody hole"—is straight out of the worst of bad movies. In other books, this would seriously impede the enjoyment; in the strange dreamlike world of Adrian Strother, it actually becomes part of it.
Apart from this, the language of the book is a joy. Listen to this for a miserable morning: "It was gray, grim gray, in the cold bedroom, and the air had the feel of wet cement." Or this for a crowd scene: "I fell like a particle of a lot of toothpaste being slowly rolled toward the top of the tube." Or this for two karate partners: "Trust someone to almost kill you barehanded, but not quite; trust yourself to do the same for him … There's nothing that feels quite like that, though perhaps a couple of things come close."
All in all, Doctor Sleep is an extraordinary book, haunting, overwhelming, sometimes confusing, altogether unforgettable. You may find some of its passages too long; you might be irritated by the frequent, not always explained, jumps from reality to fantasy and back again. But there is a pretty good guarantee, when you have read it, that the next time you have insomnia, or jet lag, or a hangover, or are simply feeling too stressed to cope, you will find yourself thinking of Adrian Strother.
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 southerners that did use southern settings. There were two generations of writers before me who were very good, that I greatly admired. So I felt released when I discovered urban life, which I didn't know anything about as a literary subject. Not that it hadn't been written about; I just hadn't read it. So it was then easy for me to start that way. And I think that was a good thing, because to that urban landscape and society, I brought a southern literary approach and stylistic conventions and also some attitudes that I got from southern writers.
What sort of attitudes?
I think a lot of what I ended up feeling about city life is stated in the abstract in Walker Percy's essays, in The Message in the Bottle and so on. His whole idea about apocalypse, which in its way I think is related—even though he comes at it from a very different angle—to the whole Agrarian idea about the way the world is going because of certain decisions that were made about how society would become increasingly technological and industrial. And the Agrarians (I think) saw those as being deliberate decisions capable of being made or not rather than as an inexorable teleological process in history. And I think that they were right. So you have those two things meeting each other in a way in a lot of my work, including all the urban stuff.
So you see your freaks in the city as very much related to southern freaks?
Well, they just seem to be like people to me. I thought they were people with whom I felt a certain kinship a lot of times. It was pointed out to me by reviewers just how fringy and in many ways socially undesirable these people were. I wasn't really thinking about it that way. I think that was naive, but there we are. I also think my association with fringe characters is a little bit inaccurate really—if you look at all the books—because not all of them are really like that.
Your ability to create voices has been very much praised by the critics. I wonder how much that ability has been influenced by your southern background.
Yes, at that point all the clichés pop out of your mouth automatically. It's something that has been highlighted for me by being married to someone who is not a southerner, and it drives her really crazy sometimes that all conversation takes place in the form of anecdotes, a kind of complicated exchange of anecdotes. I'm sure you're familiar with that, too. Elsewhere in the country it is apparently just not like that. You don't get a shaggy-dog story when you simply ask what time it is, or which way it is to the mall, in Topeka. Whereas in the South you very likely will, and that influences everyone. That's a kind of approach to wrapping the language around the world, I guess.
Do you find yourself thinking about place and community as you write?
Not consciously, no. But if I look back at the New York City stuff, which I think seems anomalous to a lot of people who are trying to figure out what to make of my claim to be, truly, a southern writer, you do see that those books are repeatedly drawn to communities of one kind or another that are trying to hold themselves together in a situation of diaspora, like the Russian Orthodox/White Russian community in New Jersey that figures in Waiting for the End of the World. Black Islam and the very specialized Puerto Rican religion Santería that is practiced in New York. The Mafia is like that too (less benign). I look back on this now and I see it makes a certain kind of sense for me to be drawn to that, being who I am. I was in some ways in a similar situation, except that there were no cliques or claques of southerners around that I particularly wanted to get into. In fact, I tended to steer clear of them—the identifiable little southern subsets at Princeton University, and then in New York, too, I was pretty much out of that kind of thing.
I certainly wasn't thinking about it then. But it comes up in the books over and over again: the ways in which people do remain faithful to their origins.
It seems that with the publication of each of your books you're turning back more and more to the South. Do you see this turning to the South as a sort of personal escape and return?
What it is more for me is that I needed to do some books that were not set in the South to prevent me from just turning out imitations of southern writings I admire because, like I said before, I'm much, much better-in formed about southern writers up to 1945 than I am about anybody else, or, at any rate, I was at the time that I wrote those first books because of the nature of my education. So now—and indeed around the time I started writing Soldier's Joy I thought of this—I can write a novel that takes place on a Tennessee farm that will still sound like me, will sound like I wrote it and not like a bad Robert Penn Warren imitator wrote it, which is my fear.
It was nice to see I could do it. That was in a lot of ways a kind of strange mnemonic exercise I had done. I wrote about half of Soldier's Joy in England and the other half in Iowa City. I deliberately did not put it on my family's farm, but I put it on one that's quite nearby. I made an imaginary place by taking different features of this little valley and scrambling them up together so none of it is really totally recognizable, but it does all come out of my own experience—I was trying to reconstruct it at a distance, which is a kind of weird thing to do.
Is that typical of your work? Do you work from places you know or people you know?
Yes, places especially. I think settings are hard to invent, but usually it's best when I'm not actually in them. In most of the New York books, I would make better progress on them if I was not actually in New York at the time. I think if you're in a big city in particular, it's surrounding you, you can't see the edge of it. It's difficult to figure out a way to contain it. Distance in a sense produces clarity: you're more able to see the forest and less distracted by the trees. I think almost everything is based on places that I really know. I can't think of any instance where I didn't do that. I wrote a story about the Battle of Little Big Horn, and I've actually been out there and looked at the Custer monument, which is very interesting. It's one of the most interesting, in fact, the most interesting battlefield memorial I've ever seen. When they came a day later what they did was they picked up all these bodies and buried them in a mass grave, but they planted stakes where the soldiers fell. They were going up a coulee to the top of a hill, where they were eventually all killed. There's just a little monument up there on the top—on top of the mass grave—and then these tiny little Arlington-style stones, where the stakes had been, coming up the hill. But in any case, I couldn't be there at the right time … but I did go see this.
That story seems very different from your other stories, just because it is historically based. Did that visit prompt the story?
Well, yes, I made that visit when I was nineteen and I did write a novella that's part contemporary and part historical, and it had Crazy Horse in it as a character. It was terrible. It's the worst thing I've ever done. But I was very interested in the subject, and I wanted to do something with it. Ten years later I tried it again. What I wanted to do was write it from the inside with an Indian point of view. I couldn't do that; I could not get that to work.
Did you do research?
I did a lot of research. I read a lot of accounts. I was interested in oral histories and firsthand accounts, including some by people who were there as kids. They were kids who were old enough to scalp and kill people, and were very proud of that. You know some of those people were still alive in the '30s telling stories, which are very interesting. If I try it again, I might have better luck. At the time, I couldn't get that to work, and so what I ultimately decided to do was turn my ignorance into the linchpin for the story. I created a character who doesn't belong there: first of all because he's on the opposing team, and secondly he's not really even supposed to be with that regiment. So he doesn't know anything. All his ignorance is really mine. It works, I think, for the purposes of that story.
If you had taken the point of view of the Indian, how might the story have been changed?
Well, hell, I don't know. I mean, like I say, I was never able to get it to work. I don't know. A lot of people have a sort of messianic fascination with Crazy Horse and I do too, and I was trying to make him be a fictional character. I think at the time I was trying to do that I would no more have been able to create a fictional Oglala Sioux to stand next to him and observe him than I could get him to be real. That's different. I sort of pride myself on the ability to project myself into alien personalities, but I really had trouble with that one. I'm doing a novel now about the Haitian slave revolt of 1791 which requires a great deal of that sort of thing.
What brought about that novel?
Well, I have a messianic fascination with Toussaint Louverture. Since we're on the southern thing, I would say too that it's a way for me—I realized this after fooling with it for five years or so—to write about slavery without having to write about slavery in Middle Tennessee. It's an indirect approach to that whole subject.
It seems there are many young southern writers who are part of the last wave of writers who are called "southern."
Yes, I don't know what's going to happen. I think you may be, in fact, getting another sort of wave of the thing that Allen Tate said about the Southern Renascence at the very beginning, which was that this was an intrinsically temporary phenomenon because it has to do with the perception that we have lost our culture. In that sense at least, historically, he was a fatalist. The whole vision we have of ourselves is about the disappearance of our culture, and that has created what he called the "strange burst of intelligence that we get at the crossing of the ways."
I think we may be getting a kind of second run on that now. It's a little bit different because it seems to me that if there's a large, powerful group of southern writers now, they're mostly women, and they mostly are not writing about any kind of Agrarian pastoral situation. They're writing about small-town life, which is, I think, quite a bit different from the central subject matter that you have for the first generation of southern writers. The person who really understood the Agrarian idea better than anyone else was Andrew Lytle. The South really was a farm culture. It was a culture of small farms. That, I think, is no longer a factor in the work of somebody like Jill McCorkle or Mary Hood, Lee Smith and so on and so forth. Sometimes some of these people get a little bit historical where they're turning up some farm folks, but their small towns are not the same kind of small towns that crop up in Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. For one thing they're much much more influenced by national culture. I suppose a lot of the interest in those novels comes out of a kind of friction between the national culture and the insular quality of the place itself. Whether or not that's going to be temporary is hard to guess. In some ways I think those southern small towns are somewhat like China in the sense that they can absorb people endlessly without really changing. You see that happening with some of these women writers I've talked about.
Perhaps as long as there are older generations to tell stories and to keep the type of culture going that has been there …
Well, that I think you truly will lose. It's kind of depressing. The person who I think was truly aware of the interest of this as a literary subject was Allan Gurganus. What's happening right now is the living memory of the Civil War is dying out for the second time because now it's not only that the last people who were in it, who were alive at that time or who were old enough to be cognizant of what was going on have died, but the last people who talked to those people are now dying. So it's a second kind of attenuation of the connection to that event, and that for better or worse is going to weaken the separate southern identity. There's no helping it.
Has your family been in Middle Tennessee for several generations?
Yes, two sides of it have been, and then if you go back to grandparents, the Bells have been there for a long time and the Wiggintons—my mother's side of the family—have been there for a long time. The distaff side of the grandparents are both from the deep South: my father's mother was from Georgia, my mother's mother was from Tupelo.
Were they in the Middle Tennessee region during the Civil War?
Yes, the Bells would have been. So would the Wiggintons, I reckon. I don't know what all they did. I do know in the Mississippi connection they had some fairly famous folks. John Allen, who was a spy as a child.
A child spy?
Yes, he was one of those guys that would go selling cookies to Union troops and count the cannon. They took that very seriously. They killed them for it, and they tried to kill him.
When you were growing up, what were your connections with Tate and Lytle?
My parents knew them from before I was born, from being students at Vanderbilt. I think mainly my mother, because she was an English major; my father was in the law school. And they were still a presence there when she was in school. I'm not sure if they were actually teaching, but they were around. And then there was a period where Tate and Lytle were at Sewanee together.
Did you know them well?
I saw Mr. Lytle and Mr. Tate fairly frequently when I was a small child, and when I got a little older I kept on seeing them. I was fascinated with the idea that they were writers, even when I was tiny. And Donald Davidson, too, he was another one. He died before I was old enough to get to know him as an adult, but Mr. Tate lived until I was in my twenties, and I used to visit him whenever I could. And I still go to see Mr. Lytle when I gel a chance.
Did you think very early on that you wanted to become a writer?
By the time I was sixteen—seventeen—eighteen I was really interested in those people. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be that kind of writer. My original idea was that the thing for me to do would be to continue the Agrarian/Fugitive pattern in my own work and write books that were southern in setting as well as in vision. And that's what I wanted to do, but I was having some difficulty doing that. I was trying to write material like that when I was in college, and it just didn't turn out. I think it was fortunate for me that I got distracted because of the whole problem of derivative-ness that I talked about before. You know there's just such an imitation problem. Well, look what happens!
How do you imitate southern writers without having it appear that that's what you're doing? I mean, the woods are full of Hemingway imitators who don't even know that they are Hemingway imitators. Amy Hempel, in a certain way, is a lineal descendant of Hemingway, though I don't think it would please her to hear me say that. But people who are imitating Faulkner—it's very apparent. People who are imitating Robert Penn Warren are very apparent, and this is a bad thing. It means they've never come out from under the weight of that influence, and very few people have done that successfully. I think Cormac McCarthy has taken some of Faulkner's things, and he was strong enough to transform them. In a way, too, George Garrett. But most people just are not that strong, and instead you get somebody like William Humphries, who just sort of sounds like Faulkner all the time. What I was thinking was I was going to try to hit some kind of position between Madison Jones and Harry Crews, who were second-generation writers that I greatly admired, and whom I wrote a lot of critical stuff about when I was in college. I don't think that would have been a good thing. It's not a good idea to consciously start off with that kind of derivative attitude.
Have you moved away from the Fugitive/Agrarian view of the South?
I don't think I have that much, really. In certain senses no. The feeling of embitterment, I think, gets less with every generation. The sort of emotional values that first had to do with resentment of things like Sherman's March through Georgia, and things that happened specifically during Reconstruction, then became a kind of resentment, which could be projected on an outside enemy, about how the world was changing. You have to admit that perhaps this is specious. It's very hard to make a plausible argument that it would still be a pastoral paradise down there if we'd won the war. I don't quite see how that was going to work. You look anywhere in the world, I don't see that. But still and all, one of the peculiar situations in the South has been that it's possible to project the anxiety and the fear you have about the destruction of the natural rhythms of life in connection to the land. This is the whole problem. It's a national problem; it's not just the South. We get to blame somebody else, and we've done that for a long, long time, but I think it's becoming harder and harder to do so.
I think the people of the Madison Jones/Harry Crews generation felt more personally affronted by the fact that the national cultural process was apparently eating up the South and changing it, in very bad ways in a lot of cases. It was a new, demographic wave of carpetbagging. Now I think it's harder to feel that way because a lot of it has already been accomplished. What happens is that peculiarly southern feeling results in—Al Gore, to put it politically, coming out of the South as a red-hot environmentalist. I admire him for that (Tipper notwithstanding). This is not a peculiarly southern concern. It's actually national and global, and it's exactly the same thing that Wendell Berry is talking about in his kind of Nouvelle Agrarianism, which is much more national in its scope and in its analysis than the original Agrarian thing was. He's thinking about the whole country. He's thinking about the Midwest and the farm crisis there and agribusiness and all that stuff. Those other guys would have too if they had been around when he was, but it hadn't happened yet. They thought it was going to happen. They were right. They thought it could be stopped. I don't think we'll ever know if they were right about that. I would like to think that it can be reversed.
Were you primarily drawn to the Fugitive/Agrarian movement by the reading that you had done or because of any particular conversation with any of these writers?
I think their whole ideology. I do not know whether those ideas consciously influenced my parents in the way they chose to live their lives, or whether they just happened to be in sympathy with them. But what they did—and this affected everything about the way I grew up—was decide very early in their marriage that they wanted to live on a farm. And at that point land was quite cheap and they were able to buy 90-some-odd acres with some forest and pasture and an old house and a falling-down barn. And there was a tenant house and somebody who was willing to live in it and work on the farm for their job, and that was cheap too then.
A cattle farm, then?
No, it was just a subsistence farm. My mother kept horses. She was not like a show-circuit person. She was running a little kind of scrub riding school. We had a milk cow, and we had sheep and hogs and a garden out of which we got all our food. They lived there six years before I was born, so by the time I was born even, they were just doing all this stuff. They were getting all their food out of the garden; Mother would can and freeze everything for the winter. She never bought any vegetables. We had a smokehouse for pork and all that. We did buy beef and chicken, but about seventy-five percent of our food was produced on the farm. When I was eight or nine the man who worked for us kind of fell apart and left, and he couldn't be replaced. So then we just did it ourselves. This was like the mid-'60s.
Either white or black, there are no longer any people who want to do that kind of agricultural labor for hire. There's nobody that has the skill. You know, the only people who know that kind of stuff now are hippies. Hippies are going to be the great repository of craft information.
Did you ever feel like a lot of kids who were raised on the farm, that you just wanted to leave that way of life?
Yes. I certainly made a beeline to New York City. I went there right after college. I ended up in this place as far away as you could possibly imagine, and now in some ways I regret it. But there are certain things about farming that I just didn't like, although in a way the disadvantages are also the virtues. Nothing's ever finished.
Well, what it really gets down to is this, and this you can find in Andrew Lytle too: If you're going to be a working artist, it's not good to also try to really be a farmer. If you're rich, you can live on a farm and have somebody else do it for you. But if you're going to be trying to do it yourself and be personally responsible, you can forget about doing anything else. And you have to have the temperament that just wants to do that exclusively, and I don't really have that.
The Taxes tried to do that.
Well, the Tates! The person who seriously tried to do that was Andrew Lytle. Lytle is very funny on Tate's effort to do that. He was completely incapable of even—I mean, you can't imagine a more cerebral personality really. Tate didn't know anything about farming. Lytle did know a lot about it because his father had a big farm—Cornsilk—and he managed that place during his young adulthood. One of the reasons he has a small body of work is that he spent so much time actually farming, and out of all those people he's the only one who did. He doesn't recommend it, I guess, as a life for an artist.
Did you consider a career that combined work in creative writing and literary scholarship, as Tate and Warren did?
I did at one time think that I would be the sort of academician that Tate was. That was my objective when I was in college—that I would go on and get a Ph.D., and I did well in school so I was a good candidate for those programs. What I did was forget to fill out the applications until it was too late. I wrote off for them all, got their forms, and I had a bale of these things in my room. I was going to take them home and do them over Christmas, and I just left them. And when I realized I'd forgotten them I thought, "God, this is great. I don't have to do this." Because I hadn't realized I didn't want to do it. I thought I did want to do it, but whenever I thought about it I would get really depressed. So I didn't do it, and I think it's better, because in a certain way I don't have the patience to be a good Ph.D. student. But I'm now in the position where I can write a literary essay, which is nice.
Could you be more specific about your attraction to the Fugitives?
Well, my first really strong infatuation with a serious author was with Robert Penn Warren. It started when I was about fifteen. I gobbled up all the Robert Penn Warren novels, which I really thought were wonderful—I still do. And then a little bit later I began to read quite a bit of Faulkner, and I read Flannery O'Connor over and over.
What drew you to Warren?
I don't know. I think both style and subject. He's a very powerful stylist. The first one I read was All the King's Men, and I was very taken with the momentum of the language and the worldliness of that narrator. And then I just got more and more involved.
Well, if you think of those two together: he's a very lush writer and she's very spare. So in a way she's like an antidote. If you get an overdose of the rush of words that you find with Warren, then the kind of crabby, spare style of Flannery O'Connor is really nice to go to. So those two writers were working on me quite strongly when I was in high school, and with, again, a fair amount of Faulkner being pulled along in the background. And then by the time I got to college I read more across the whole base. I read Tate's novel and was starting to read the essays, which I still use as a critical Bible.
I became very interested in the ideological position of the Fugitive/Agrarian movement as it was expressed in a lot of literature, which had to do with a sense of something gone radically wrong. I now think about this in a different way than I did then. In fact, the whole thing has affected my work quite a bit. Walker Percy talks about this too, but he talks about it in broader religious-philosophical terms. In his language, there is a general sense that most people still have—whether they practice religion or not—that things are not going the way they're supposed to. You're not in your ideal position. And, in fact, that's a sort of general quality of human experience, I guess, but southerners have had a stronger sense of this, I think. It was focused for them in what happened to the South, in the worst possible way. In Percy's language, the sense of unease, of not being at home, the sense that things are awry, comes from what he calls an "aboriginal catastrophe," which is remembered. In the Judeo-Christian religion, that's the fall. But for southerners, it's the Civil War. That's the whole thing that's underwriting the Fugitive/Agrarian movement.
Now my sense of this is, I guess, a little bit broader than it was twenty years ago or even ten years ago. I don't see this any more as a kind of uniquely southern phenomenon. It's really general to our whole society, but I do think that southerners have had a peculiarly potent understanding of it and have had this ability to make it into art. They have a particular sense that something happened, though blaming it on the Yankees is increasingly hard to do. But because of the whole nature of industrial progress, which, of course, did have a lot to do with the war and losing it, we have now come to a very vexatious point in national history and in human history: Do we have the power to destroy our world completely? And I think we're now to the point where it's not just can we crush some particular culture and eradicate it, which is the southern subject—can you destroy yourselves on a global level? Can you destroy, stamp out certain groups of people completely? And indeed you can. That's been proven.
But now the question that's so much broader is, is it possible to commit species suicide? And I think, in a way, that is the southern question in a broader form. The Agrarians didn't know that's what they were looking at when they predicted the kinds of disasters that would come about as the result of hegemony of an industrial society over an agrarian society, but their sense of danger had a lot to do with where we're at now. And, of course, they were really right about that. Whether their strategy for preventing it would have worked, I really don't know, but it all has to do with eschatology and the sense that you have of being at the end of your culture or at the end of your life or at the end of your race. Now the species itself is in some real jeopardy.
People know this, and they're very reluctant to think about it. But it's part of the unconscious makeup of most people. That, in a way, if you want the Fugitive/Agrarian influence on me stated in the abstract, is what it's been. It certainly made me sensitive to those issues, and it gave me a peculiar way of seeing things. And out of that eschatology comes a good situation for art, because the very terror of that, as it's sublimated, makes for good fiction and poetry, for strong narratives. That is the phenomenon that produced all the great southern literature, and I think we're now going into a phase where it'll be a national literature that turns on that problem. A universal eschatology that says we are living in the last days. That really is what's happening now, and I think that's the big motor that is going to turn out a lot of literary art. In the future it will be interesting to see if there's anyone around to read it.
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: "Born in 1957 …" The note on the other book has me reaching for my cane: "Debra Spark was born in 1962 …" No doubt about it, the marketing mind has decided to locate the cutoff line between prodigy and ordinary adulthood at a round three-zero.
This is something new, and a quick retrospective glance will confirm it. Joyce had written Dubliners and most of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before he was thirty, Lawrence published Sons and Lovers at twenty-eight, and when Hemingway affixed the date—September 21, 1925—to the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises, he was a mere twenty-six. Nobody exclaimed over their precocity, or flashed their numbers at the public. These were adult artists; they had long since put sweet youth behind them.
The changed perception, I'm certain, stems in part from the demographics of what has come to be called a youth culture. But the real explanation goes deeper. Quite simply, it's become extraordinarily difficult for a writer—any writer—to give comprehensive expression to our times. The forces are too various and incalculable. The rate and magnitude of change have outstripped the integrating powers of the psyche. Even older, proven writers are at a loss. The feel of life out there in the present seems to elude their verbal net. With the possible exception of Don DeLillo's White Noise, I can't think of a single recent work that has managed to get a narrative frame around the ambient sensations of the cultural moment. And DeLillo is no beginner. The near impossibility of achieving significant art has raised the threshold—any literary attainment before the age of thirty starts to look remarkable.
Madison Bell touched on some aspects of this malaise in his essay "Less Is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story" in the April issue of Harper's. Although he deplored the "low-key noncommittal presentation" that characterizes the fiction of writers like Ann Beattie, David Leavitt, and Bobbie Ann Mason, Bell did not pay sufficient heed to the conditions that foster it. Against the engulfing insubstantiality, he raised the example of Peter Taylor, "arguably the best American short story writer of all time." But Taylor does not write toward the present, he turns against it; his work is an ongoing time capsule of Southern mores in the forties and fifties. Bell noted this, of course. Nevertheless, it was Taylor he invoked to bolster his final point: "Literature might as well undertake certain responsibilities abandoned by the rest of the entertainment industry." The syllables scarcely chime with conviction.
When I first ran up against that phrase yoking literature to "the rest of the entertainment industry," I assumed that Bell was being deliberately wry. But now, after reading Straight Cut, I realize that my impulse was too charitable. The book is a straightforward middle-brow page-turner that has been dressed up to look like something more: an existential thriller, an investigation of fast-lane morality. Forget the pretense. Starve it for a day, and it will reveal its true shape—a screenplay.
I have no problem with that. Entertainment is entertainment. What bothers me is that the idea of literature has got mixed in. I hear Bell touted in certain circles as a comer, a serious writer. And then he goes public with big diagnostic pronouncements, raises a call for a responsible fiction. When a man takes the time to build his own gallows, we ought at least to do him the courtesy of hanging him.
Straight Cut is actually Bell's third novel. He won the terrifying moniker of "promising" (Cyril Connolly: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first call 'promising'") with The Washington Square Ensemble and Waiting for the End of the World. Both were praised for their energy and their openness to the edges of culture. Both were also criticized for their shapelessness and excess. Bell has evidently taken those reactions to heart—Straight Cut is pure narrative.
The plot begins simply enough. The protagonist, Tracy, who's living in numbed estrangement from his wife, Lauren, gets a call from his old moviemaking and drug-dealing partner, Kevin. Kevin wants him to fly to Rome immediately to edit a film. Tracy is suspicious—he knows just how duplicitous his "friend" can be, and he's being given far too much money up front—but he agrees anyway. Deadlocked souls love a promise of trouble. The project turns out to be small potatoes. Living in a borrowed apartment, Tracy falls into an automaton routine of work and sleep, hiding from everything. Until one day he comes back and finds Lauren in his room and a mysteriously locked briefcase parked by the door. As this is, ultimately, a genre novel, I dare not take away the sole reader incentive by divulging any more. The staples are all there: drugs, sex, guns, stakeouts, smuggling, betrayal, death … And yes, the usual gritty location shots in Brussels and London.
Take away the plot, and the critic has nothing left to bite into. Characterization is nonexistent. Whether this is by design or just a result of hasty execution I can't say. Possibly Bell wanted Tracy to be one of those hard-hurting iceberg narrators—he is given a drinking problem and a penchant for Kierkegaard. But there is an enormous, if superficially subtle, difference between an understated character like Jake Barnes and an undeveloped cutout like Tracy. And without a sense of who Tracy is, you can make nothing of the dark vibrations that he claims to feel for Kevin, or the wavering passion that Lauren seems to elicit.
I go on at this length only because Straight Cut is being sold to us as something that it's not. The back of the jacket features the New Yorker seal of approval: "Every sentence he writes is a joy." And other critics weigh in with phrases like "ennobled vision" and "Between your screams of delight are his overtures with death …" This is just blurbing, I know. But every so often we need to blow the whistle on it—after all, you might be the one tricked into buying the book. Bell's every sentence is not a joy. I open the book blind and find: "In Kevin's entryway I waited five minutes before I could stop shaking. Another drink would have gone down good but I didn't have one handy." The pages are filled with this kind of unshaven prose. Anyone capable of reading Kierkegaard ought to know that good should be well. For that matter any writer who can celebrate Peter Taylor as our living master should be well aware of how the line between literature and the entertainment industry gets drawn.
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 large-souled talents as well.
Bell might be described as a regional writer—his region being the foggy border that buffers purgatory from hell in the sootiest creases of contemporary society. The plots he sets in motion there, if merely described, would sound as sensational and bizarre as Stephen King's. What places them well within the sphere of art, however, are Bell's sharp insights into, and extraordinary compassion for, his outcast protagonists.
Since his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, with its cluster of heroin dealers, Bell has always written with conspicuous sympathy for the alienated and the bruised. He searches for characters beaten down by a combination of life and poor choices yet who retain, however vaguely or unconsciously, a desire to seek affirmation.
In Save Me, Joe Louis, Macrae, age 23, is AWOL from the army and living in New York's Hell's Kitchen. He hasn't enjoyed much of anything since his teen years in Tennessee, when he was in love without knowing it with a spirited photographer named Lacy. Broke and wandering in Manhattan's Battery Park, Macrae spots Charlie. They ask each other for a handout and "circle each other like two strange dogs," then team up to rob the first of a series of victims carrying ATM cards. No guns, no violence, just forced withdrawals of $400, the maximum allowed. "Relax," Macrae tells female victims, "I'm not a rapist. I'm a thief." Charlie prefers the term "aggressive solicitation."
Petulant and lost, Macrae often forms unfortunate attachments, one to a prostitute whose pimp decides to blow half her head off. His most dangerous alliance is with the increasingly unstable Charlie, whose rationale is, "Ain't nobody cares that much what you do."
After they've made New York too hot for their comfort, they head south to Baltimore where they add a third partner, a benign, dog-loving young black man named Porter, fresh off a jail term for a bar fight that inadvertently turned gory. The three hold up an armored car, but police arrive, bullets fly and the trio heads full speed for Macrae's blind father's farm outside of Nashville.
Were trigger-happy Charlie not with him, Macrae might feel he's returned from far east of Eden. There's the potential for a wholesome life in Tennessee. Adjacent to Macrae's land is the farm of Thomas Laidlaw, the hero of Bell's 1989 Soldier's Joy, who'd done much two decades earlier to rid the area of injustice. Not only is Laidlaw there, still playing banjo with his bluegrass band; but also the beautiful Lacy has returned home from art school in Philadelphia. That she still loves Macrae is clear to everyone but him, as he keeps stumbling aimlessly in restless confusion.
After a robbery attempt even more botched than the Baltimore fiasco, Macrae, Charlie and Porter flee to the South Carolina coast. There it grows obvious that Macrae may have outlived his usefulness to Charlie, and that the book's final page won't be big enough to hold both of them.
Bell has visited most of these settings and walked with these dangerous drifters many times before. Over the last decade, he has put before us heroin addicts, murderers who plot to set off nuclear bombs in New York City, alcoholics, unemployed sound men slipping from the human community in dingy Greenwich Village bars and insomniac hypnotists who keep pet boa constrictors and stalk nighttime streets while haunted by Renaissance mystics. He invites us to care about characters who offer scarcely an inch of ground to build affection on—no more than, say, some foolish old man who gives his kingdom to two Satanic women while disowning the only child who loves him.
Yet, by combining subtle technique and native compassion, Bell inevitably succeeds. Here he establishes his authority immediately by the careful accretion of accurate detail. Whether he describes audio equipment or tae kwon do or the Port Authority Terminal, his minute realism wins the reader's suspension of disbelief. Holding fast to that trust, he edges us into the murky world his people inhabit, like Porter's gin mill where "most of the seats at the bar had been taken by the ageless career boozers, damp tangled clothing twisted into their wrinkled skin, leaning in tight to their ashtrays and glasses." From there he gradually draws us into the smoky and dark caverns of the characters' minds. He makes us feel Macrae's discomfort, his reluctance to hurt people, his affection for those close to him, his unvoiced hope to know a simpler world he can inhabit with Lacy. And she, the potential healing agent, blends an allure, vitality, loyalty and self-possession that again reflect Bell's affection and respect for women, even when they sleep with killers.
As Bell descends with Macrae into his underworld, he takes us with him, and we see that the crucible that forged Macrae held our trials too. Here lies Bell's trademark gift, how he moves among modern thieves and lepers with charity. His is a Robert Browning empathy that creates no character so defiled that Bell cannot ask, "What is at the heart of this man that is in me as well?" In Macrae, Bell once again takes a character you'd be disturbed to find living anywhere near your neighborhood, then moves relentlessly against the grain of popular thought to find the embers of Macrae's humanity beneath the ashes of his pain.
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, in his early 40's, is an ex-con and Macrae, hardly more than 20, is AWOL from the Marines.
Never once in Save Me, Joe Louis do they have a thought of getting a job, or of giving up the grift, quitting the scam, abandoning the occasional low-rent mugging or dropping the habit of stealing a car for a few days. While these two men are not stupid, they are not very bright either. To make it worse, they are totally alienated from society, alienated from the criminal subculture in which they live their lives and, most devastatingly, alienated from their own selves.
These two predators on the weak and unsuspecting think of themselves as pretty good guys. I don't find that very strange. As James Baldwin put it in his introduction to his play Blues for Mr. Charlie, "No man is a villain in his own heart." Just so. Charlie and Macrae have their own valid—at least to them—reasons for what they do. Their view of the world, and their understanding of it, seems reasonable to them. It is the quintessentially recidivist con's mentality, a mentality so ordinary and common in this society that it keeps all our jails full to overflowing.
Save Me, Joe Louis is Mr. Bell's ninth book in a decade—he's published seven novels and two collections of short stories—and it is not his first trip to the hairy underbelly of society in search of a story. He seems to have an overwhelming affinity for that level of existence where the qualities of which novels are normally made are missing—qualities of mercy and love and compassion and sacrifice and most of the other abstractions you've ever heard.
It would seem reasonable that the next sentence I ought to write would be something like: "And consequently, Madison Smartt Bell has written another bad novel." Not so. He has not to this point written his first bad novel, so far as I'm concerned. In Save Me, Joe Louis, Mr. Bell has taken the artist's shaping magic and transformed a totally unpromising narrative into something of value.
The narrative of Save Me, Joe Louis is sorry enough. Charlie and Macrae meet in the dead of winter in New York's Battery Park, where they try to panhandle each other. Neither of them has any "spare" change for the other, so they decide to do what they do best: take the money from the next people they meet, in this case a couple of college kids out on a date. Charlie and Macrae become friends and steal together, dope together and drink together. In the process, a teen-age prostitute is brutally slain, and so is her pimp, Big Tee. It is not long before they draw so much heat (they are not the most skillful bad guys in the world) that they have to steal a car and head south. They end up in Baltimore, where they meet a black ex-con named Porter and the three of them steal (among a great many other things) a lot of guns and Charlie blows away some cops.
This is when Porter tells a too-good-to-be-true story you often hear in the Deep South: "'I heard this story,' Porter said,' Back when the gas chamber was new, you know? Go back 40 years or whatever. First dude they threw in there, one of the first. Somewhere down south, I guess it was. Anyway, they wanted to see how it would go, so they had some kind of a window they could look at him through, and they put a microphone in there with him….
"'Save me, Joe Louis,' Porter said. 'That's all they got. Over and over, just like that. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis.'"
There's nothing to do but steal another car and run again, this time to a little farm in the hills of Tennessee where Macrae was raised and where his blind daddy still lives. There, and in South Carolina, where Charlie was born, the novel is resolved, insofar as such a story line admits of resolution. The men are doomed, they know it, they have always known it, and they accept it.
Macrae is left with the greatest possibilities. He is back home with a woman who may or may not save him. Most important, he likes being back home and has no desire to return to the dirty, bloody, noisy big cities, and certainly he has no desire for the life he has left behind him on the mean streets of those cities. But the trail he has left behind him is hot. He knows it and we know it. He, too, is doomed.
The two men at the heart of this story are not the first doomed men to populate a novel and make it pulse with life. Mr. Bell's ability to render the look and smell and sound and even at times the taste or place, his vision of human experience being no more than dust blown in the winds of chance, and finally his determination never to make the life of the novel have more symmetry and sense than flesh and blood normally have, make him the exceptional novelist he is, and also make him capable—in his best moments—of occasionally turning a miracle. Save Me, Joe Louis is a remarkable read. I encourage people everywhere to go out and put their money down and take this book home.
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.
That said, it must be stressed that Madison Smartt Bell's latest novel is richer in subtlety and nuance and a lot less romantic than might be expected in a genre that thrives on bold strokes and the frequent glorification of hard cases. It is both a good read and an ambitious, informed exploration of the underbelly of America.
The two chief characters, Charlie, an ex-con with a penchant for spur-of-the moment robbery, and Macrae, a hillbilly army deserter, are already loaded with deadly personal cargo before they meet on a cold autumn night in New York's Battery Park. The chemistry between them creates the foul brew of their tale.
The two begin by perpetuating a common urban nightmare—forcing selected Manhattan pedestrians to visit the nearest bank machine and withdraw the daily cash limit, or all of their money, whichever comes first. This is a relatively innocent avocation compared with what comes later.
Charlie and Macrae use the proceeds from these early crimes to rent an apartment and hang out at bars and greasy spoons in the Times Square area. It is as close as they ever get to bliss. Naturally, things fall apart pretty quick. Macrae and a prostitute woo each other, angering the hooker's pimp. After a bar fight and other grim preliminaries, the pimp kills the prostitute, executing her in front of Macrae with a heavy caliber pistol that splatters brains all over an alley.
Macrae, who usually is just along for the ride with Charlie, finds the will to act on his own. He carefully manufactures a lead-weighted baseball bat and begins stalking the pimp. The revenge is horrific.
Soon after, an impulsive holdup fails when the Korean store owner gives Macrae an educational flesh wound. Now wise enough to leave New York, Charlie and Macrae head south, landing first in Baltimore where they find haven with Porter, an ex-con whose duplex adjoins a crack house.
The three musketeers steal a few cars and then decide to hold up a liquor store. By now, Charlie and Macrae are using guns. The liquor store robbery fails, Charlie turns his shotgun on the cops, they escape by the skin of their gnashing teeth and flee southwest to Tennessee. There, the gang holes up on the hardscrabble farm of Macrae's father, an old man in his last decline but still wily, unsentimental and inscrutable.
As a rural interlude, the Tennessee sojourn is anything but bucolic. Macrae meets an old nemesis at a barbecue and finds an old flame there, too. Meanwhile, Macrae begins to distance himself from Charlie. In his inchoate way Macrae is seeking redemption as he finds a small flicker of decency still burning in his heart.
But it is a tiny flicker, indeed.
Bell seems to know intimately the seedy sides of New York, Baltimore and the ex-urban south of housing developments and shopping centers abutting old, dying farms. He renders each locale exquisitely and seems as familiar with street jive as redneck vernacular. For fans of symbolism, Bell throws in an elaborate and deft use of legendary boxer Joe Louis as an icon for the down and out. In fact, the novel's title derives from an anecdote about Louis and a condemned criminal.
There are many fine passages, including one tracing the steps of a successful crabbing expedition and another about the grittiness of a Tennessee hog roast:
The men around the smoking pits were tired and sooty, a processed bourbon smell leaking out of their pores along with the green hickory smoke. Two whole hogs, cloven from jowl to tail, lay blackening on wire screens across the pits. A fat man seemed to be in charge. Sunburn ran all under his crew cut and down to the neck of his football jersey, a flashy acetate thing with a mesh curling flirtatiously over his guts. He reached on the rack and lifted a hind trotter, woggling the bone in the loosening meat.
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 first, retribution threatened. It takes a skillful rage for order to make sense of the moral and political morass that was Haiti in the midst of its historic uprising. Toward the end of Madison Smartt Bell's novel about the revolt, All Souls' Rising, his central character notes that the corpses unaccountably dragged from the middle of a Haitian street and lined against the walls represent an exotic "impulse to bring order into hell's worst chaos." We may conclude the same about this epic novel constructed on the moving avalanche of history. The order Mr. Bell brings to his novelistic chaos is never fixed, always provisional; yet, alert readers will not lose their way following his carefully drawn road map through hell.
On May 15, 1791, the French National Assembly granted full political rights to free mulattoes in Haiti. As a response in the May 15th degree, Mr. Bell's Haitian royalists decide to stage an insurrection of the African slaves, who are the population's vast majority. Their thinking is that this will drive all revolutionary nonsense out of the colony's white Jacobins and the free mulattoes. Let them see the black face of freedom, says a royalist, and you'll see the end of politics.
But politics in this centrifugal world, charged with racial division, has a way of quickly flying out of control. The black uprising is Grand Guignol come to life. Two thousand whites are killed, 180 sugar plantations burned, and a 14-year military struggle set in motion. Mr. Bell's protagonist, a French doctor named Antoine Hébert, wanders through the resulting flames while searching for his sister, the wife of a dead planter. Hébert is not unlike Tolstoy's Pierre adrift in burning Moscow, an adult child fortified with the proper degree of innocence in his perceptions. He becomes our guide through a tunnel of horrors.
All Souls' Rising is historical fiction in the monumental manner, heavily prefaced, prologued, glossaried and chronologized. It admirably diagrams the complex muddle of 18th-century Haiti, a slave society constructed along clearly racist lines but with surprising alliances. Haitian whites, split into royalists and revolutionaries, alternately compete for and spurn the loyalties of free mulattoes, for whom gradations of color are of central importance. Mr. Bell informs us in his preface that 64 different colors had been identified and named among the mulattoes of Haiti, with social rank predicated upon lightness of shade. Lacking such bodily marks of distinction, the whites adopt identifying tokens: while cockades in their hats for the royalists, red ones for the revolutionaries. Meanwhile, the rebellious blacks, led by, among others, Toussaint L'Ouverture, think the French King will free them, and adopt the royalist uniforms and the tactical strategies of European armies.
This bizarre and rich stew is the perfect stuff of fiction, whose subject is never reality but competing realities; but it is also clearly the stuff of history and readers will undoubtedly be reminded of chalk marks on doors, Jews forced to wear stars and the whole sad sweep through history's alleys of differences marked out for excision. In All Souls' Rising, the acts of excision on every side are bloody, torturous and mind-numbing in their repetitive insistence. Beneath the social and political collusions and betrayals, the real subject of the novel—and the ground-floor perspective for its understanding of history—is the human body and its fragile relation to human identity under conditions of torture and mutilation.
For much of the novel, the violence is relentless. There are entrails galore, mutilations by the bucketful, multiple rapes in pools of blood. A man throws himself across the mouth of a cannon, clinging with arms and legs to its barrel, and is blown across a field "in a bloody net." Two men remove a soldier's eye with a corkscrew. One group of rebel slaves carries as its banner into battle a white baby impaled on a spear, arms and legs weakly waving. A female slave nailed through the wrists and feel to a pole is removed with an ax. This is strong stuff and threatens to numb by repetition into a handbook of splatter-punk.
To his credit Mr. Bell knows that violence may be the writer's hedge against mawkishness, but it also threatens to become mere slush, the sentimentality of gore. The most telling moment in All Souls' Rising occurs when Doctor Hébert observes through a thicket a man bound to a tree being skinned alive.
The operator was a mulatto, oddly freckled—the doctor felt he'd seen him somewhere before. The subject, on the other hand, was skinless now, deracinated, transmogrified into the internal self he possibly had always been, raw human nature laid bare to greasy viscera and a scream. The doctor had seen the assembly of these parts of ten times before in his own chilly dissections—but this was life itself. Unconsciously he mutilated the vine he'd plucked between his fingers; new fragrance rose from the crushed leaves. He felt through his nausea and terror that he was witnessing something well beyond torture or murder. Though he could not understand or grasp it, he was seeing what it meant to be human. This was a sincere inquiry into the nature of man, not how a man is made and how his parts cooperate, but what a man is, in his essence, and who, in the final analysis, would be allowed to be one.
This is merciless and perhaps a bit portentous, but not heartless. It may help to know that the victim is the white plantation owner who conceived of the staged insurrection, and the flayer is his mulatto son. In passages like this one, Mr. Bell appears to test his characters' limits in order to make readers test their own. And he knows that readers only care about violence when they care about the characters on whom the human meat is tacked.
The characters in All Souls' Rising, Mr. Bell's eighth novel, are an uneven bunch, but they grow on you. The dazed Doctor Hébert, for example, accumulates an appropriately befuddled human reality as the novel progresses. But the most memorable character is the one around whom the violence most often swirls, like smoke or spinning flies: the wife of a vicious slaveowner. Against all odds, Mr. Bell succeeds in making us, if not admire, surely marvel at this woman, Claudine Arnaud, as we marvel at a monstrous spectacle of nature. She and her husband become horribly redeemed by violence, their own and that of the historical moment that they have helped to create. The passages describing them are some of the most startling—because disturbingly lyrical—in the novel.
The black characters are less successful. Toussaint L'Ouverture is by turns saintly, foolish, canny and paternally benevolent. Mr. Bell can't quite seem to penetrate his mystery and allows him to stand, as it were, in unassembled pieces that the historical imagination despairs of putting together. Part of the problem surely is the generally hagiographic manner in which Toussaint is presented. When we first meet him, he heroically rescues his children from wild dogs, then later, like a black Joseph Smith, becomes anointed by God in a jungle clearing. We see Toussaint held so beautifully in a nimbus of sunlight that "he would have the power, when he chose, to give it forth as a healing light."
Similarly, a runaway slave named Riau—whose chapters in this otherwise omniscient novel are narrated in the first person—strikes me as a failed experiment. Through Riau we learn about voodoo (or, properly, vodoun) and its role in the Haitian uprising, but in thus instructing us Mr. Bell must violate the first-person authenticity of his character with clumsy passages of exposition. He never quite finds the right voice for Riau. Mr. Bell tries to show Riau as torn between identities—pagan and Christian, black and white, illiterate and literate—but the terms with which the character portrays himself are often leaden versions of Western anthropological formulas. "The words were thinking in my head that they were like the corrupted kings of Guinee," he says, sounding like a ventriloquized Tonto describing his own alternation. "I, Riau, I hated all of this," he says. "Riau wanted Ogun in his head again instead of all the shadowy thinking words." Language like this perilously skirts the slippery slope to Ungawa, Bwana!'
These are flaws, but flaws dwarfed by a powerful and intelligent novel. Mr. Bell can manage epic slabs of action remarkably well, has a feel for the panoramic and iconic, and, above all, seeks to understand and probe the mysterious intersection of history and flesh by which historical forces become incarnate. All Souls' Rising, refreshingly ambitious and maximalist in its approach, takes enormous chances, and consequently will haunt readers long after plenty of flawless books have found their little slots on their narrow shelves.
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 much, much more about the terrors regularly inflicted upon African slaves by their French masters, including the fact that "it was nothing to lop an ear or gouge an eye, even to cut off a hand, thrust a burning stake up a rectum, roast a slave in an oven alive, or roll one down a hill in a barrel studded with nails."
And then, when the political tables turn in the book's second half and the slaves stage a successful rebellion, equally gruesome forms of revenge—such as the removal of a captive's eyeballs by means of a corkscrew—are visited upon the French. There is a description of a man being flayed from head to foot, while very much alive, that will have even hardened readers peeking between the cracks in their fingers.
The massive erudition Bell displays about methods of torture in All Souls' Rising is worth noting because it reflects his massive erudition about just about everything else in this ambitious and audaciously complex novel. Most historical novelists are content merely to unfold their plots against what's often referred to as a "historical backdrop," as if they were talking about wallpaper. All Souls' Rising on the other hand, is a remarkable feat of historical imagination—one that tells a compelling tale from several competing points of view and that digs fully into the emotional, intellectual and historical realities that made up Haiti in the late 1700s.
Bell unspools this saga on an intimate, human scale, which is impressive given the complexity of his subject matter. The Haiti he writes about was torn not only by political divides (the French colonials versus Haitian and African slaves of shifting allegiances) but racial ones; as Bell notes, 64 different shades of color were identified among the island's many mulattos, "and social status depended on the lightness of the shade." Combine the anger and confusion caused by both situations, add the fact of the concurrent French Revolution, and you've got a volatile brew. Bell keeps his facts straight—the book includes a preface that provides historical context, a chronology of historical events, and a glossary of terms—while keeping the book's sensibility loose enough that he can garnish chapter headings with apt lines from Bob Marley's songs.
The book's narrative revolves around the slave rebellion that effectively ended white rule in Haiti. Bell tells this story through the eyes of several characters, including a freethinking French doctor named Antoine Hebert, an African slave named Riau, and a particularly cruel French landowner and his rebellious wife, Michel and Claudine Arnaud. Perhaps the most notable character, however, is the historical figure Toussaint-Louverture, a self-educated, second-generation African slave who led the rebellion while attempting to prevent grisly mob violence against the French.
As All Souls' Rising hurtles towards its close, the battle scenes and skirmishes grow more furious, and the bodies seem to pile up and up. Yet Bell's narrative never feels rushed or cramped, and away from the heat of battle there is plenty of room for human interaction and often a kind of wry humor. Bell has always been a muscular writer, a kind of Martin Amis without the fripperies, and his gifts have never been more fully on display. In his hands, even a simple sex scene—here between the shy French doctor Hebert and a mulatto woman—takes on an heightened intensity: "He'd lost all sense of his identity; the last vestige of the personality he'd brought into the room eddied somewhere high above like a flake of ash from some great conflagration. Perhaps it had an eye and watched the scene. He'd slipped his boundaries; there were capabilities in him he'd never known. This was vertigo."
In earlier novels such as Soldier's Joy and Waiting for the End of the World, 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. It's a big, morally intricate book that grows, deepens and shifts as the narrative progresses. At more than 500 pages, too, All Souls' Rising, a finalist for the National Book Award, sits lightly on the lap. It is that increasing rarity: a serious historical novel that reads like a dream.
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 than meditations on the ever-present painful past of the nation's most romanticized and vilified region.
But his cornucopian All Souls' Rising, nominated for the National Book Award, is a Southern novel—of a sort. It is about slavery, about revolution, about class, about the past, about racial hatred, about the Byzantine mechanics of oppression. The novel is set in Haiti, not Mississippi, and it is a historical novel the way William Faulkner's great Absalom, Absalom! is a historical novel. Indeed, All Souls' Rising is kin to Absalom, Absalom! somewhat in the way Toni Morrison's Beloved is a mirror revision of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Both Bell and Faulkner explore the mysteries of slavery, miscegenation and the decline of the plantation system, but where Faulkner is most passionately interested in the fall of the Big House white folks, Bell tells of the rise of a self-made black hero, the Haitian patriot Toussaint L'Ouverture. But both Faulkner and Bell give us their best prose on the bleeding tragedy of race in the New World, the unquiet ghost that haunts our bright egalitarian national edifice. Absalom, Absalom! stands as an undisputed masterpiece of American (not just Southern) fiction; without claiming too much for it, All Souls' Rising suffers only a little in comparison.
Bell's style can be as evocative and eerie as a cathedral full of candles, or as luminous as a rainbow. And he has a way with a Gothic image that would make Faulkner (or Poe) proud: "Madame Arnaud, or no, it was Elise herself, younger than she ought to have been, her face at sixteen, seventeen. Her gown was hanging off one shoulder. Blood squirted mightily from her severed wrists, and as she reached out to embrace her brother, she opened her mouth and howled like a wolf."
The novel is Gothic—but it is also political, social, tough and lyrical all at the same time. Bell does some of his most impressive writing about the runaway slaves hiding in the Haitian hills, who, with the ex-coachman Toussaint, fostered the revolution that took from France the richest colony in the Atlantic. Bell balances his various stories—which are large—with the exquisite and unobtrusive precision of a master choreographer. We deal in turn with Doctor Hebert, newly arrived from France, as he searches for his sister Elise, who has fled from her husband's great plantation, or Riau, who has escaped from a vicious master to join the rebels and is possessed at times by the gods, or Nanona, beautiful mulatto with a political agenda of her own.
The Haiti that Bell spreads out for us, like a gorgeous and busy tapestry, is both familiar and tantalizingly strange. There is the violence, the magic, the decadence, the sweltering heat, the passion, the rage that marked the country then—and colors it still. But there is also an uncanny sense that this is a place like no other, a place we cannot quite grasp, a New World where everything is actually very old, almost a myth, like the transcendent Africa or Guinee the slaves believe lies at the bottom of the ocean.
Like all "historical novels," All Souls' Rising is really about us, our times, our prejudices, our race wars. And in the telling of our story, it is as powerful as a hurricane.