In his essay “Less Is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story,” Madison Smartt Bell classifies himself as a traditional writer, one who believes that only by observing the most minute details can one arrive at universal truths. Although Bell’s methods are traditional, his characters are the products of contemporary society. Whether they live in the rural South or in the urban Northeast, they are lonely, alienated figures without a clear sense of purpose. Their world is marked by cruelty, violence, and death, all of which Bell describes in harrowing detail. In “Triptych I,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, gruesome descriptions of hog butchering frame the central incident, a human death in which the victim’s arm is charred on a hot stove burner. Here and elsewhere, Bell uses structure to remind his readers that they are animals, too, not much different from the hogs, rats, and cockroaches that they kill.
However, human beings can rise above their animal nature. Some of Bell’s characters act on principle. The dog trainer in “Black and Tan,” from Barking Man, and Other Stories, stops working with boys because he has doubts about his methods; the waitress in “Monkey Park,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, will not leave her husband even though she loves another man. Other characters are compassionate. In “Move on Up,” from Barking Man, and Other Stories, homeless people display a touching generosity toward one another. One also has to admire the semiliterate narrator of one of Bell’s funniest stories, “The Naked Lady,” from Zero db, and Other Stories. Although he enjoys shooting rats and watching barroom brawls, this character is essentially a kindly soul, who worries about his roommate’s career as a sculptor and even lets their rat-eating snake warm itself in his bed. Even if we have lost our faith in the myths that once sustained us, Bell believes that we can still find meaning in our willingness to connect with one another.
In “Irene,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, a young girl becomes the central reality in the narrator’s life. After experiencing some personal disappointments, the narrator moves into a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, hoping that in isolation he will turn into a creative genius. In fact, however, he sinks into apathy. One night his neighbors invite him to join them on their steps, and he is so struck by the beauty of a twelve-year-old girl named Irene that he cannot get her out of his mind. He even fantasizes about marrying her. On one occasion, when he sees her crying, he takes her into his apartment until she calms down. The narrator finally pulls himself together, gets a job, and moves away, but he can never forget Irene. He only hopes that she has some recollection of him. Though he now knows that his fantasies of instantaneous success and marriage to Irene will never be realized, the narrator has found himself by connecting with another human being.
“Today Is a Good Day to Die”
“Today Is a Good Day to Die,” from Zero db, and Other Stories, is an initiation story. The protagonist is a young army lieutenant, who in 1875 has been assigned to General George A. Custer’s unit at Fort Robinson as an observer. That is also his function in terms of the story. Though he is a West Point graduate, the lieutenant has a great deal to learn about war and even more to learn about this conflict. His initiation begins when a whiskey trader tries to sell him a leather-like object that was once a squaw’s breast. The falsity of the trader’s justification, that Native Americans are not human beings, becomes clear to the lieutenant when one saves him from death in the snow. While they sit together beside the fire, the Native American draws a sketch to show the lieutenant how Custer’s men massacred unarmed Native American women and children. Though he does fight at the Little Bighorn, the lieutenant later deserts and starts walking toward the mountains,...
(The entire section is 1,168 words.)