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 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."