This year sees one minor literary anniversary which deserves more attention: February 24th 2023 will be 40 years since the first publication of The Washington Square Ensemble by Madison Smartt Bell.
The original US edition’s cover art had the main character’s names scrawled on a wall, to mark that this was a novel set in the dangerous urban environment. That was certainly the wider context of this story of a drug-dealing gang, though in fact none of them would spend any time creating graffiti. The UK edition had a rather more sober image, which is in some ways closer to the novel in as much as the gang were working Washington Square specifically to reach a better class of customer for their goods.
My connection with this book and author, and my reason for writing this, is quite feeble. In 1987 I happened to see a review in some books pages of recent fiction, which included 2 works by Madison Smartt Bell: The Year Of Silence, and Zero db And Other Stories. The reviewer praised the artistry but complained that the outlook was bleak and pessimistic, and compared the author to Iain Banks and Desmond Hogan. Whether it was because his name was odd, or the title Zero db seemed odd, it stuck in my memory, and so a few years later when I saw a pile of remaindered copies of the UK paperback in a shop I bought one. I did not find Zero db a depressing or especially bleak book. My mother had died a few weeks before, and these stories, several of which involved characters suddenly dying, suited my mood. I went to the local library and borrowed their copies of The Washington Square Ensemble and Waiting For The End Of The World. They were quite different, and quite magnificent. After that I read The Year Of Silence and Straight Cut and slowly worked my way through the others over the years. I caught up with the most recent, Behind The Moon (2017), last year and that started the idea of going back and reviewing all these novels together. They are all in fact quite magnificent.
These novels are Bell’s novels set in the modern US. I haven’t read his historical novels because I have an aversion to anything presented under that label, but I will be reading them now. There are 4 of them: the Haiti Trilogy, based in the slave revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture – All Souls’ Rising (1995), Master Of The Crossroads (2000), The Stone That The Builder Refused (2004); and Devil’s Dream (2009) about Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Klan. I have read Charm City (2007), the walking tour of Baltimore, but not any other of his non-fiction works, including Narrative Design, which is presumably based on his course lectures as a teacher of Creative Writing.
If these novels are not world famous then they were at least successful enough to be translated into several languages. The German edition of Washington Square, N.Y. had on its cover a quote from Stern magazine describing its author as “Das Wunderkind der US-Literatur”. My knowledge of the author mainly derived from the text on the inside of the UK paperbacks of his 80s novels:
It is obviously a typo to state that he went to Princeton in the year of his birth (that would be too much of a Wunderkind), more likely when he was 18, my age when I first read this text. The error is replicated in editions of several different novels I own, which suggests no one did too much close proof-reading, and then perhaps had too much faith in a digital copy. The Storytelling Stone is clearly the early title for Washington Square Ensemble, surviving as the name of the first section of the novel. Although it is silly to assume a simple correspondence between an author’s life and the events their characters encounter, it’s not hard to see that the time working in the warehouse informed Redmon’s experience in Soldier’s Joy; the work on a documentary about junkies is reused in Straight Cut, and the unhappy time at Princeton was treated in one of the stories in Zero db, along with the shapeless days in various slums running down the money.
Although that potted history has elements of a Misspent Youth narrative, there is not much of that in these novels. They are mature from the beginning, having already learned some hard lessons, and understanding that not everyone has the same opportunities to waste. Many young men are having adventures in these books, but they don’t enjoy them since they usually occur in squalor and violence and begin from disturbed or destroyed family relationships. The characters that start out in New York are happy to get out of there when they have the chance, and the ones that travel there in search of fortune are soon disabused.
Modern US life features many victims and casualties and there are no cheap and simple one-liners about what to do about it. That includes any conservative sermonising. Although the rural South recurs in these books, and several protagonists head there (or return to their roots) after a bad time in the cities, there is no pastoralist sentimentality here. Life around Nashville can be as violent and oppressive and deprived as the worst urban hellhole, and it carries its history and secret history, sometimes literally buried underneath the decaying old mansions. Vietnam War combat veterans brood listlessly while the guys who kept away from the fighting get to take the best jobs back home. The only black guy at a barbecue can’t avoid being aware he’s only one there because everyone’s looking at him like it’s the first time it’s ever happened. Away from the farm land, small towns and trailer parks are places of despair and desolation, and the epidemic of prescription narcotics was a plot point in a Bell story from 1990. This is the “left behind” side of America before the Clinton years moved the rest of the country ahead of it. The world of precarious employment in the early 21st century, under surveillance and cut off from external news even on the day of 9/11, is captured in later novels, along with the uncertainty of new immigrants reaching America after more recent wars.
A common thread in these novels is the importance of religion or some kind of supernatural beliefs in making sense of the world, or at least making peace with it. This idea is fully formed already in the first novel, and remains a regular beat, even after the mid 90s when we enter a long phase in which there is no clear reference to any tradition. None of the crew in the wild death race of Save Me, Joe Louis seem to believe in anything except in Joe Louis as a symbol of power fighting for the powerless – but they already know that begging to be “saved” by him is hopeless, in the crudest sense of physical rescue, which is the only kind they can imagine. The only faith that operates in the world of Anything Goes is the belief in rock’n’roll and the blank euphoria of an extended psychedelic jam session; nobody believes they can get much of a music career even in Nashville. Aside from these examples we have several Muslim characters: Yusuf Ali and Raschid, converts to Nation of Islam, and Jamal the teenager from the Middle East. Adrian Strother is fascinated by the Hermetic texts and detests the glib scepticism endemic in his generation. Mae belonged to a cult preaching awakening and spiritual fusion and the hedonistic violations of forms. Fr Claude wishes the Jesuits had tried to accommodate Native American religion. Brother Jacob has a message of peace and racial unity.
But what all these examples have in common is that none of them are strictly orthodox or faithful to tradition: there is always some aspect of syncretism or dissolving of dogmas and identities. Not quite always making it up as you go along (even Mae seems to be under the control of some logic that the People cult discovered rather than simply invented). What is encountered in the unseen world is not a Supreme or organising presence as rather the bare occurrence of other presences, undermining and confuting all mundane categorization. The sublunary world may be structured in a pattern, all the odd coincidences and lucky surprises lead a path to the break in the curtain; but the glimpse behind it does not explain or justify. The “spirituality” in these novels is not just the banal lesson that sneery college graduates don’t know everything. The radical otherness underneath appearances, just away to the side of experience, doesn’t point back toward any particular confession or creed either. The Storytelling Stone first belonged to a Native American from out West, and Julie Westover’s journey behind the Moon is in a stone chamber out West. If they are connected in a corridor in time it would not make any more of the universe they share.
All these stories do certainly exist in the same universe: there are shared characters in the various New York related stories. When I first read it I felt sure there was a peripheral link between Straight Cut and the other 80s stories, though I can’t find it now. Adrian Strother’s memories of life in New York before he moved to London could tie in to The Year Of Silence, while Porter’s life in Baltimore could have a reference in Ten Indians. The group in Anything Goes might be playing gigs at the same venues as Laidlaw’s group played 25 years earlier in Soldier’s Joy, although maybe not as they’re not really working in the same circuits: one of them is doing modern rock, the other old country music. Even if they do share a few characters these books all stand alone and are not part of an overall sequence or panorama. They are also told in different ways with different structures. The earlier books not only have first-personal narrators, but they are quite chatty and opinionated and often amusing or disturbing, sometimes both together. The later narrators are rather colourless, which may reflect a decline in storytelling in the cultures they grew in. Mae is of course always deadly, maniacally serious, but Jesse the guitarist seems never to have read a book or seen many films in his life. His vocabulary is quite varied, but he has modern rock lyrics to draw from, and his band only play the oldies.
A few scenes recur in the Belliverse: a wedding or some other formal occasion is going on, and our characters wander across and into the events where they would not be invited but manage to pass as belonging, at least for a time. Happy scenes can be strange and alienating if one is not on the guest list. Martial arts clubs are a regular social connection spot for Bell males. Educated middle class characters find their lives lack flavour, but they can’t absorb any of it elsewhere. Angry middle-aged lawyers go after any unsuitable young guys they find their daughters hanging around with. Characters in these stories sometimes die, and in the dying moments they see elements previously occurring in the narrative, before melting back in to the world.
These novels do not openly engage in games about their own fictional nature or make references to their author and his works, beyond the submerged linkages of common characters (for example, the stranger who seems to recognise Larkin’s brother at the start of The Year Of Silence.) They are not stuck in any presumptions about what makes “literary fiction” and have many plots and sequences suitable for thrillers (Straight Cut has always been marketed as such, judging from its various cover designs). The nihilistic odyssey of Save Me, Joe Louis has a string of set piece shoot-outs and car-chases which someone like James Franco would surely love to film, but it also has the hapless bungling and desperation that would fit as well in a comedy if we cut the violence and expand the romantic side of the novel, removing the realism about the changing power in the relationships. These novels have the same power provided in the novels-on-screen of late 90s/early 00s high-status TV drama. Much of the hardcore description of New York Mafia life in the 60s and 70s in Washington Square gives the same thrills as The Sopranos, whilst the Baltimore gangland of Ten Indians was also seen in The Wire. If the road-to-success tale of Anything Goes seems a little too much like a corny Star Is Born rags-to-riches plot then that’s what it ought to be, and anyway we still get to crash back to 90s reality when the cops come round to do a drug bust.
I think Madison Smartt Bell has written a great body of work and I want to read the rest of it. I would quite like at least one more contemporary-set novel, but he doesn’t owe me anything. I find it frustrating to read articles that describe an unfamiliar author’s oeuvre in just enough detail to intrigue but not enough so I can decide whether to go in, so here now are all the notes on the books I have read. As for the title: “Bad Moon Rising” was of course by Creedence Clearwater Revival. They were actually from California, but to my distant British ears they may as well have come from Tennessee or Alabama or anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon, which seems to be all they were trying to indicate in their works. “Bad Moon Rising” was also taken as a title for an album by a group from New York who included a southern man who’d gone up North. The picture at the start of this Note is “The Scarecrow” by Andrew Wyeth, which was used on the cover of a Penguin edition of a novel by another Southern US writer and strikes me as faintly similar to the album cover as well. Faulkner and Sonic Youth, Madison Smartt Bell is halfway between the two.
In these other pictures, notice that in the 80s artists did read the texts to prepare an original image referencing some incident within them. Images taken from copies I own, some of the images above were borrowed from other people.
It all begins with the Gospel of Luke: “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” (19:40). Then we are in to Part One – “The Storytelling Stone”, and a further epigraph, this time from Tom Waits.
The time of the novel is either 1980 or 1981, although there are few references to contemporary news. Ed Koch is the Mayor, and “Mystery Achievement” by The Pretenders (from their 1979 debut album) is playing on the radio at one point. The action of this novel takes place across one weekend, but we hear life stories going back over decades. It is divided into chapters narrated by the different characters taking turns to add to the bigger picture of life in New York in the early 80s. The grand impresario is our first speaker, Johnny B, who runs this crew of dealers operating in Washington Square.
…I get very angry inside, because it is against the rules and ethics to sit down with strangers at this late hour, because it endangers the take.
Yet when I draw nearer I see that the fifth wheel is not precisely a stranger, it is Porco Miserio, Porco for short. Porco looks nothing like a pig, being worn and emaciated to the very bone, like a speed freak, though he isn’t that either. I gave him that name for reasons I will develop in due time, the same reasons, in fact, that I do not want him to fraternize with my retailers, who also got their names from me. I give everything a name, and perhaps it is time that I gave you my own.
My true christened name is Enrico Spaghetti, or something like that, but I am known to my colleagues and business acquaintances as Johnny B.Goode. Because I love black people and their music and money, and because I do be good. I carry no I.D., my pockets are perennially empty of pharmaceuticals or anything else that you might want to find, and I do not do business with my relatives. Absolutely no way, not for years and years. I buy my pharmaceuticals from the Latinos in Alphabet Town, and what do I care if the Gambino family brings it all in from Turkey? Nothing, that’s what I care. I care so little that most of the time I don’t even know it. And I can afford the markup, because here in Washington Square we cater to a classy clientele.
There is just one other reason for this name I gave myself. When the narco squad comes down looking for Johnny B.Goode, they are not looking for a white Italian. But enough of all this personal stuff.
Washington Square is “classy clientele” and that makes a big difference to anyone who works there, as he notes later on when he sees a hooker getting hit by her pimp.
Now this is Washington Square, not Union Square where you can take two hours and torture somebody to death. Here you’ve got ten minutes at the outside to waste someone, then comes the man. However, time flies when you’re getting badly hurt.
If you really know New York you know
…this wicked city is simply an undifferentiated wall of menace for anyone so recently arrived… the crazy young people in leather and chains and pink hair who walk up and down Second Avenue… are really only harmless fools who don’t even know anything about the real evils in this world.
Johnny knows the city well and can judge when someone takes an unusual turn, headed for a different subway station than would be expected. Johnny’s new family have been picked and named from the outsiders of the city: Yusuf Ali, Holy Mother, Santa Barbara, and Carlo from Santa Domingo. The last of these is sacked right away for uncouth behaviour towards a waitress and also talking back to the boss. I wonder if there was an earlier version of the novel that included chapters about his life, removed either to shorten the book, or because they mentioned topics that were just not acceptable in 1983. I’m not sure if this passage is implying that Johnny has Carlo as a casual boyfriend, though Porco tells us later that the secret of his success is to absorb and reflect the personalities of others.
…of course Carlo never came in on a boat. He flew in on a double-decker jet with a passport and everything, and didn’t run out of money for two months. He got used to money, and the next thing you know he was working for me. Even though he doesn’t like me and he disapproves of drugs, with the possible exception of amyl nitrate, which I suspect he takes when he goes to the disco. That’s just fine, because doping on the job is strictly forbidden. And Carlo is welcome to hate me if he wants to. Sometimes I hate him.
As Johnny mentions later, in his mock-business school patter: “one of the important advantages of hiring employees of mixed ethnic backgrounds is that no one is going to trust anyone else quite enough to set up any fancy deals.”
What the others have been mesmerised by is Porco’s announcement that he has The Storytelling Stone. It was given to him by a Comanche travelling through from Arizona, who drank himself to death.
”The Storytelling Stone,” says Porco. “I hold it in my hand and I have knowledge and power.”
…”I can’t make it talk,” Porco says. “It can make me talk. It can even make you talk, Johnny B. But we are not to know the day or the hour.”
Johnny used to be friends with Porco but doesn’t want him around, as he got high one time and made a disturbance in the Square which brought the cops in and spoiled trade for weeks.
Porco miserio, I forgot to tell you, means pig misery, the lowest of the low. It’s what you get when you think about what you can’t do about.
What Porco’s appearance sets off is a night of anxiety and recollection from all the gang members. Holy Mother goes away to his apartment to shoot up.
I go outside myself and look back from somewhere near the light bulb on the ceiling. I see a little man hunched over a table under the bright light.
I hate him.
He has good reasons to hate himself. He was a mob hitman back in the late 60s before he got sent down for 3 life sentences for homicide and ended up in Attica prison. He can remember all the details of how wise guys like him got looked after on the inside. “E block was ours. There were just two things we couldn’t get, women and out.” He got caught up in the riot at Attica in 1971 and ended up in hospital, where a lazy nurse let him get the habit of injecting himself. His old friend Johnny got new lawyers who could get his sentence reduced to time served, and so he was finally out and with a debt to pay off. He also has to live with the memories of all those jobs he did, not just old mob guys but also street dealers who’d tried to cheat the business and needed a lesson, which might include throwing a baby out of a window.
Yusuf Ali remembers a violent childhood and youth when he was Leon Lenox.
I remember her dead, but I have never remembered her alive. It is my first memory, my dead mother, she is lying on the kitchen floor, on her left side, with a chair upset behind her, spun half under the table, and her head on an open newspaper.
A long journey through squalor and violence and working for Buzz, a street dealer who needs juveniles to take over the sales side of his business.
There were rats in my basement. There were rats all over Fox Street. They lived on garbage, cats, each other, sometimes small children. The bigger ones ate the tires off cars. The biggest ones were the size of little dogs. The first night I spent in my basement I sat up all night and stabbed rats with my ice pick.
…Buzz had four other bagmen, all under fifteen. He paid pretty well, but the other four ran their pay pretty well up their arms. I never touched the needle… Everyone was buying. I sold to five year old children and eighty year old men and to everybody in between.
This was of course an outlying part of the same world that Johnny B. and Holy Mother were nearer the centre of.
…no one ever tried to shake me down while I was dealing. But that could have been because of Buzz. He had organization contacts and they protected his operation. It was their operation too. If something went wrong with it someone would get a visit from downtown. One of those long black cars would roll up to a building on Fox Street, and everybody else on the block would suddenly go deaf, dumb and blind.
Of course he got arrested and found out his old boss had lied to him, and he ended up in Spofford Juvenile Detention Center. When he got out, he ran in to Buzz again on the street… now calling himself Ali abd Al-Ghaffir, and offering him a copy of a special book to read.
I backed into a doorway and looked back at the book. I looked at the marks. I could not understand them. They were concealed from me. But I did know now that there was something there to understand. For Allah is named Az-Zamir, the Manifest, as well as Al-Batin, the Hidden.
I carried the Quran back to my basement. But I did not stay there very long. The basement would no longer hold me. I could even see through its walls. For Allah is named An-Nur, the Piercing Light…. And Allah is also named Al-Waddud, the Lover, who bestows compassion. So I was delivered. I was not Leon Lenox any longer. I had become an aspect of the Nameless.
Santa Barbara was born in Puerto Rico but as no memory of it, as his family moved to Hoboken when he was 5. He learned from the secret religion from shopkeeper Mr Rivera, about the true God behind the official religion and its saints, and the spirits of the dead that are present to him all the time.
Mr. Rivera tell me how Saint Barbara living in the old world. Her father dont like what she believe, so he keep her locked into this tower. After while she still dont change her mind, so her father take her on top the tower and cut off her head with he sword. Next minute he get killed by thunder and lightning. Chango living in a tower too, Mr. Rivera explain. Chango holding thunder and lightning too. Saint Barbara and Chango be the same, only most people don’t know.
One man that do know is Yanni-B. he come up to me and call me Santa Barbara, and I know he know what he saying. How he know, I cant tell. He dont act like santero but he know something only the santeros know. Maybe he could just be a santo lavado but I think he got too much power for that.
Some time I thinking maybe he dont know nothing. Maybe somebody just tell him words to say and he dont know what they mean. But now I dont ever think that no more.
Santa Barbara wants the stone that Porco talked about, and this sets off a night journey to find the dead Comanche, and then try to get the body away. There is a fine, tense description of the dangerous time trying to find a suitable car to steal, and then get it moving. Meanwhile, Porco goes off to talk to an old cop about their mutual friend, and offer a mixture of dimestore philosophy and closer observation.
”So what’s the gag,” Whelan says, yawning once more.
”Just what I said. No consciousness, no memory, it makes you very charismatic.”
”People can come along and run into you, and they can’t tell you’re you. They think you’re them, get it?”
”Oh, sure they do. And what happens when they find out they’re wrong?”
“But they’re not wrong. That’s the whole thing, it’s what he’s got going for him. He wants to get along with people, he never even has to think about it. He soaks it up direct, knows where they came from and what’s on their minds and what they want. He just turns into them for a little while.”
Porco gets caught up again in the saga of the dead body, but is back in the Square for the climax, and his great speech. Porco is more than a romantic cliché of a Wise Fool. He’s a thief and a cheat himself, and when he was putting his line about Johnny on Whelan he was himself attempting the game he was describing. But he may be sincere in the Gospel he finally preaches. God can speak through stones or in thunder; he can pick up Johnny and make him dance out of character.
”And that is the reason, my friends and enemies, that no matter what you say or think or do, no matter how sweetly your luck may beguile you, you will sometimes or often wake up in the night in the chills and fever of the sudden knowledge that you know nothing, you understand nothing, and if you did you could never speak of it. Therefore you are alone, and you will always be alone. And despite whatever devices your crawling intelligence may contrive, whatever gods you may throw up in front of yourself, they or the great wide world itself will never say anything more to you than this – I AM THAT I AM. And that’s it, that’s the bottom line. How do you like it?”
Waiting For The End Of The World (1985) takes its title from a song on Elvis Costello’s first album. “Less Than Zero” was also a track on that album, but Brett Easton Ellis’s novel was published a year later.
This is the same world as the previous novel, and Porco Miserio makes a brief appearance. This is also a story of a controlling, manipulative leader who has gathered together a group of misfits and casualties, although this time he has a quite specific project in mind for them.
This time everything is narrated in the third person. We commence with “Prologue: July 1982” and then 5 long Parts, each divided into many short, named chapters. The Prologue is presented all in italics, and is itself a single chapter title “Bad Weather In Virginia”. The style is rather different, heavy on the portentous cliches and more in the mode of a mass-market thriller.
At quarter to eight on a Tuesday morning, a highway patrol car appeared on the vast desert surface of Interstate 81, about ten miles out of Roanoake and southbound for that city. It was hot for the early hour, the air motionless, the sky oppressive. A red-tailed hawk angled over the highway and tilted toward the patrol car in a movement of the most fleeting interest. Profiting from the vagaries of the weather, the hawk rode a thermal straight up into the sky as if on an elevator.
Two slob buddy cops stop to make sure a deadbeat lorry driver gets back on the road to take his special consignment where it’s supposed to be without delay. It’s important that he does that, as it’s carrying nuclear weapons material. Also in the diner is
…a middle-sized kid in his late twenties with dark hair… The dark-haired kid sat very still, his left thumb hooked over the edge of the coffee cup before him, the other hand resting at a belt loop, both hands, Henderson noticed, laced with fine white scars.
That’s Larkin, our moody central character, and our two dumb cops realise too late that he killed the driver and made off with the cargo.
Larkin lives in Brooklyn, “wrapped in his well-practiced solitude.”
Time measured itself by no seen motion but only in some few sounds which came in a series to his ears: a raised voice or loud radio, a muted backfire from the street, the susurrus of trains coming down over the Williamsburg Bridge behind his building. The appearance of a bird or a drift of clouds irritated Larkin, who wanted only to watch the air perpetually blending into itself – condensation, evaporation, events without beginning or end. In the absence of any other visual fixture the dots coursing across his own eyeballs were sometimes capable of distracting him. On reasonable grounds he suspected the air itself to be subtly poisoned and he waited for some clear sign of this fact to appear.
We now see snippets from newspapers placing these New York scenes in a larger context. At the same time there are also many worlds within the world, crimes and conspiracies beyond the street rackets in Washington Square. Larkin is not entirely affectless, and he is shaken to see the wounds inflicted on a young boy brought in to a hospital emergency ward, scarred with “an inverted pentangle” etched on his back. In an act of hopeless heroism he takes the boy away into hiding, to avoid him ending up at Spofford.
Larkin is also connected to The Cell, which is itself connected to The International, and they have plenty of guns and big ideas. The big man is the fabulously wealthy Simon Rohnstock, upper class Marxist, who took a leave from Harvard to be at the Sorbonne during 1968, where he acquired a taste for revolutionary violence by (accidentally) killing a French criminal who was threatening him. By the end of the 70s he is running “anger clinics” from which he can identify and recruit the men he needs for his own group.
Charles Mercer was a teenage high school dropout in Georgetown until his brother’s death in Vietnam convinced him to go back to graduate so he could get a scholarship for a college deferment. He went to the University of Chicago and in that city made friends with a local wiseguy who gave him a job moving cocaine from Colombia to the US after he graduated. He got busted in that game, and after being brutally treated in Mexico, got released and then went off to kill his old buddy.
David Hutton was a teenager from New Jersey who killed his best friend in an impulsive joyriding incident. As a court deal he agreed to serve in Vietnam, where he was also lucky to survive after his helicopter was shot down. That further incident gave him massive psychological issues, and he was unable to settle into a regular job during the 70s.
Ruben Carrera grew up neglected by his mentally disturbed mother until she threw a bowl of hot cleaning fluid at him, leaving him disfigured. He cannot tell the truth about how his face became damaged.
These three casualties were all recruited into The Cell along with Larkin, who had met and befriended Mercer when he were both down & out and sleeping in New York parks after breakdowns. We learn the true story of Larkin’s origins intertwined the timelines of the other four, with a clear chronology running up to 1982. He was a preciously talented young pianist who was accepted to Juilliard, but ended up instead going to Rhode Island School of Design, and ended up disliking his own work. Then there was at least one failed relationship, a drink problem, and a spell in Bellevue Hospital and then on the streets. This is not the story about his family history he likes to tell, in which his grandfather was a Russian aristocrat who have to give up his land and emigrate to America after killing a thief who was robbing a church collection box. But Larkin does have some Russian background and relatives, and this points to another influence in this novel: Dostoevsky. In some ways Larkin is an inverse of Prince Myshkin, The Idiot; Rohnstock and The Cell are the revolutionaries in The Possessed. He is certainly under Russian influences as well, since he cites Nechayev’s Catechism Of A Revolutionary as the source of the ideal of The Cell.
The narrator of these lives is not particularly sympathetic to the counterculture that was swirling around the misfits. “There was a generous supply of hippies and war resisters at the University of Chicago, but Mercer did not join them.” Later on, “Fifteen year old Amy, Hutton’s little sister, had in a mild middle class way become a hippy, peacenik, and war resister, and so had all her friends.” When Hutton meets his wife, “Anne Paxton was in some ways a programmed product of the sixties. She was a lukewarm war resister, and also considered herself to be something of a free spirit. But when she found out she was pregnant, Anne made an instantaneous reversion to type.”
In addition to the plots and mysteries Larkin is privy to, there are strange happenings in New York – cases of spontaneous human combustion make the pages of the news that is noted early, and that thread comes back again in the climax of the novel, after the exciting saga of the desperate men has played out.
Straight Cut (1986) has an epigraph taken from Fear And Trembling. Kierkegaard’s works are a lifestyle accessory for the narrator Tracy Bateman, living dejectedly back in his old family home in Tennessee (the exact location is not stated, but we’re not far from Hickman County).
Some sitcom had come onto the tube. I turned it off and went on the porch, where I sat down in an armchair and switched on a light. From the reflection in the small window behind the stovepipe I could ascertain that I still resembled myself when last seen. The second volume of Either/Or was lying on top of the bookcase near the chair and I picked it up and opened it to the place I’d stopped last. Kierkegaard on “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage.” I read this: “But the more freedom, the more complete the abandonment of devotion, and only he can be lavish of himself who fully possesses himself.”
I liked that. But what followed seemed incomprehensibly convoluted. I sat there for five or fifteen minutes watching the letters crawl around on the page, and finally closed my eyes. It occurred to me that if I drank the rest of the bourbon I’d probably be able to cry, but I didn’t get up for it. I hadn’t taken a drink since Lauren had left – well, two or three days later maybe – and though it was much like locking the barn once the horse had been stolen, I was still determined not to take one.
Here Bateman sums himself up as a jaded leftover of a failed career and relationship, impressed by smart one-liners but unable to make the commitment of longer and deeper passages. He’s now getting near 40. He’s still connected to New York with his loft in Brooklyn that he sublets, but he doesn’t spend too much time there nowadays. He was working as a film editor for many years in the outer edges of the industry. No explicit date is given but we can assume it is mid 80s, suggested by the incidental detail that he worked on a documentary about the New York underground art scene ten years ago, and that a European anarchist character was involved in “la politique” violence a few years before that. There is not much mention of VHS, so the straight-to-video market has probably not available yet, though it would be ideal for Bateman and his associates.
His main collaborator was Kevin Carter, a very cheap film producer with little to show for his years running tiny companies with no much more than a name on an office door. This is the world of low rent film-making that hopeful wannabes encountered.
Jerry Hansen was twenty-three when I was thirty-five and he had just come out of NYU film school with three or four nice-looking sixteen millimeter shorts and some impressive abilities as a cameraman and a naive but consuming desire to become to become a director. Jerry Hansen got his diploma and walked all over town, dropping off his resume, much as Kevin and I had done ten or twelve years before. But by the time Jerry got around to it, Kevin had rented a cubbyhole in the West Forties under the name of Chameleon International Filmworks, and this was one of the places Jerry dropped into.
If Jerry’s experience was the typical one, his visit to Chameleon would have been the brightest spot in a weary and frustrating day. Because on your first trip, you never get past the receptionist. The receptionist is always a woman and young and usually gorgeous and she has on a pair of shoes worth more than your annual income, and in the couple of years she’s had her job she’s brushed off hundreds of star graduates from film school. She tells you the production manager is in California, and you hand her the resume, and after the first few times you practically run for the door so as not to see what she does with it.
The worst part, in my judgement, is how your feet get terribly blistered and sore. But I have a high tolerance for humiliation, or used to in those days.
We hear one of many odd moments in Tracy’s narrative, as the submerged details of his past break surface:
I wasn’t working with Kevin so much by then. I had worked my way around to an editor’s card and I was happy enough with that. It brought a lot less confusion and slightly better hours and a significantly smaller number of people who could jerk me around. Cutting was mostly an affair between me and the equipment, and I liked it that way. I was married by then, even if we weren’t exactly living together, and the security was appealing too. As for the other side of the business, I’d been retired for a couple of years. Not to mention qualms of conscience, the older I got the less I liked the idea of big jail, and the longer you keep doing a thing the more probable it is that someone will find out about it.
The “other side of the business” is drug smuggling, which is a profitable sideline in the film industry as there is plenty of technical equipment in the luggage to hide extra small packages in. Tracy’s break with Kevin occurred because young Jerry Hansen paid the price for a botched deal. But we have to pick up the details out of sequence: first we are told about the dents in the wall of the New York loft, only later about the argument that put them there. Bateman is not just a film editor, he has been editing his own memories and experience, trying to treat the past as another of those impersonal machines he prefers to work with.
The story of Straight Cut evolves from his emotional retirement as Kevin rings up to offer him one more job: a chance at editing some documentary project about drug addicts in Rome, and maybe also a little extra business about travelling to Brussels to hand over something. Things move slowly as the rollercoaster plot rises up to the summit of Tracy’s self-absorption, and then races down thrown chases and fights and hiding out in cheap rooms. There is plenty about the technical side of the editing process, and how the old American has to tutor the amateurish Italians who have been very careless with the lighting and soundtrack.
I fell into the rhythm of working by rote, and the job began to go faster. Pieces fell into their appropriate places: establishing shot, interview with some rehab center official (here endless match cutting was required, to create an illusion of continuity where in truth there was none), cutaway to encounter group, some horror story told by a client, cutaway to a street scene, say, and then another horror story. This assembly of parts was satisfactory, yet my mind drifted. I began to feel a vague unease, to suspect that certain pieces missing from the puzzle would never be found or had never been there at all.
Of course he uncovering the truth about himself and trying to make a better job of the editing. His relationship with Lauren started casually (he married her so she could remain resident in the US, being a Brit) and he came to realise how important a part of his life she was critically ill; her post-breakup affair with Kevin is also a wound. This is the story of his late maturity. The structure of the text is faintly analogous to Either/Or, mixing his first personal narrative with an excursion into Lauren’s consciousness during the flight to Europe, remembering one of her sessions with a therapist to discuss her feelings about the relationships after her near-death experience.
Tracy is no longer amused or excited by the violence and uncertainty of New York. There are several other kinds of cuts alluded to in this title: severance from bad parties and places; the cutting of physical violence; the financial cut of the profits from the drug deal (and the notional cuts of the profits from the film projects that never recoup anything); the quick cut to the chase as the action comes to a climax. These multiple meanings were referenced directly in an early cover design:
We never hear too much about the other features that Chameleon International Filmworks attempted to produce, though we hear that professional actors are sometimes involved, so perhaps they could have made cheap and simple thrillers about the drugs trade. This story could be turned into a script and sold by Bateman to fund his new life at the end. It has a reasonably Hollywood-friendly happy resolution, although now his uncertainty is about the future rather than the present and past.
I will believe that this immediacy can become a permanence. By force of my desire and will I’ll make this time a fortress for the future.
The eleven short stories in Zero db And Other Stories (1987) are divided into 3 parts. Part I has 4 examples of what could be called “Southern Gothic”, showing marginal lives close by death and violence. “Triptych I” fits its pictorial title with a description of a bleak rural site in winter that could have been painted by Andrew Wyeth:
The tree line at the top of the ridge was stirred by wind so that the light snow fell off the branches and scattered down the ragged slope. The snow parted in grains before the wind and settled in the low places. Not enough had fallen to coat the long gully that ran down the hillside and the gully lay bare, a reddish slash in the pale skein of snow. No snow stuck to the old disk harrow or to the pump at the bottom of the gully and these dark forms were outlined sharply, like the dark trees against the sky. Their iron was so cold it would burn skin at the touch.
“Burning cold” is a realist detail of this world that would seem strange and paradoxical to an urban viewpoint, which may also be unsettled by the brute facts of raising and killing hogs. A sudden death has a gruesome consequence:
Without anyone’s knowledge, the malignancy in Amelia’s brain had returned and grown to a painful size. As she moved now, it broke apart and swirled forcefully all through her head. The picture that the room made in her eye diminished to the size of a postage stamp and then disappeared completely as she fell across the top of the stove. Her elbow struck the boiling pot, which bounced from the wall to the floor, spilling the meat and the water. The crook of her arm rested on the glowing coil of the stove, and after she had lain for a while the arm began to char.
“Triptych II” also has images of meat and slaughterhouses, and here the centre panel relates the final day of Mr Eliot, a reclusive alcoholic who only ventures out of his front door to shoot at pigeons on the railings opposite.
There was a shape moving dully in one place on the rail and Mr Eliot began to see a glowing ring around it. He wondered if he had hit the bird, and his blood jumped hard in his veins. Mr Eliot felt them breaking. When he was stretched on the floor his cheek felt immeasurably cool and comfortable against the old boards, and he saw himself straightening, elongating, and moving far away.
“The Naked Lady” is the testimony of the friend of Monroe, a young man whose life undergoes a shift. This is written in the spelling and syntax of its narrator’s voice, which seems to be dialect from the hinterland of New Orleans.
Monroe went to the college and it made him crazy for a while like it has done to many a one.
He about lost his mind on this college girl he had. She was just a little old bit of a thing and she talked like she had bugs in her mouth and she was just nothen but trouble. I never would of messed with her myself.
Stories in Part II head to the North, following the life journey of young Madison himself. “The Structure And Meaning Of Dormitory And Food Services” describes life at Princeton University, its title showing a young mind exposed to ideas of structuralist theory whilst the contents relate a decline into apathy and disconnection and eventually being terminated as a student, whilst continuing to work as one of the drones in the DFS. He ends up fascinated by a blind student, David Lehnsen (“a brilliant student of higher mathematics, and he played the cello wonderfully”) whilst also getting letters describing American students aimlessly trekking around Europe, getting on and getting off trains and discovering where they had arrived later.
Lehnsen receded and diminished down his path, and when he got small enough I superimposed onto him my mental image of the American kid with his Eurailpass, stumbling half awake into an unknown foreign city with his eyes all gummed up and crusty with sleep. Whenever he wakes up he wakes up in the dark. Take Lehnsen and lead him through a few loops, then spin him around a time or two and he won’t know where he is. And he can’t find out, being blind, till someone comes along to tell him.
“Irene” is the testimony of another dropout. Whether he left college is unclear, but he did fall asleep on a train and try to make their “radical change” into a new start where he woke up, in this case Newark, New Jersey. At least that’s the first version of the origin story, but he immediately replaces it with the no less absurd explanation that they took inspiration from opening The Conference Of The Birds by Farid ud-din Attar at random. A quotation from the end of that book also appeared at the end of Waiting For The End Of The World.
The titular Irene is a local girl on the block who can only look in wonder at the empty life of this cultural tourist.
I tried to think of something good to do for Irene, but I had nothing much to say to her. I didn’t know what might distract her. I had nothing in the house to tempt a child with, nothing to eat but potatoes and coffee, nothing to play with but books and records. Irene was enclosed and unreachable in her weeping…. Her face was getting dirty with tears. I wondered what she might think of the place: queer dusty intellectual clutter on one side and absolutely nothing on the other. Would she wonder what I was doing with an empty room in my house? Irene had probably never even seen an empty room.
“The Lie Detector”, and other stories seem to be told by the same narrator, now in New York and shuffling between poor quality rooms and poor quality jobs, slowly learning about the grimmer lower sides of the magical city that attracted him from afar. Our naïve young man is getting cheated by different landlords and their agents whilst struggling to get an income to sustain him after his savings are gone. He needs to wise up and learn how to be a cold liar himself to survive in this city.
I looked out the window. For just a minute I felt very upset. It was so simple to give the lie to Lubin, and now I couldn’t do that. I had lost track of the lie now, and I might never find it again. Out beyond the window I could see the bright ribbon of train tracks curling away over the bridge, gleaming in the afternoon sun. So maybe the lie was out there too, I thought, even if I couldn’t see it. It was just there, floating around with the other particles of the atmosphere, and everybody got a little piece of it, and it didn’t belong to anyone. And that was fair for everybody, even for me. Because after all the hundred dollars didn’t come from nowhere.
Part III of the book is the single historical story “Today Is A Good Day To Die”, concerning a 21-year old lieutenant in Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1875.
He is not a reckless or adventurous young man, rather the reverse, but he craved more active duty, which in 1875 means either the equivalent of police work in the conquered South, or else a post on the western frontier, where Indian uprisings continue.
Caught up in the disaster at Little Bighorn 6 months later, and left “merely numb”, he rides back with the scouts to aid in the identification of the dead bodies. Another young man drifting away slowly from his conventional boundaries after feeling the shock of hard violence.
The other officers have dismounted to begin the dreary work of identification, but the lieutenant stays in the saddle and rides a little away from them. At a short distance he stops and turns back to look again. The scene is unreal, dreamlike, yet if it were a dream, he thinks, it would require a vision to explain it. The lieutenant touches his body here and there and finds that he is still substantial, though he is quite certain now that his life is no longer his own.
The Year Of Silence (1987) is a further instalment of the New York world seen in the earlier novels. Told in 11 chapters with stark, allusive titles like “I’ve Got A Secret” and “Feast Of The Assumption”, the year it encompasses is the one following the disappearance of Larkin. His younger brother Tom, a pianist, is back in the city. After trying fruitlessly to find him, he has now settled on the scheme of the titular year. He will only practice his craft every day using a soundless replica of a piano keyboard.
In the second month, when the search was flagging, when the officials involved had completely lost interest and his parents had subsided into a dreary lack of further expectation, Larkin had decided to take a vow. The idea was so completely unlike him and sufficiently like his brother to be quite appropriate for the circumstances. Nominally, the intention was to purchase his brother’s return at the price of his own mortification, though in his rational mind Larkin never believed that it would work. But at the worst it would provide his own uncertainty with a terminal point. When the year was out he could play the piano again and begin to grieve.
Until then, practice meant the rap-tap of his finger ends on pine. The Lincoln Center engagement had come up after the vow was in effect and Larkin could not believe it was enough excuse to break it. By a coincidence of dates he would have two weeks of practice on a sounding keyboard. Of course that was hardly enough time to accomplish anything much. But meanwhile, the fingering was everything, wasn’t it? Larkin’s face remained solemn and remote in the mirror, betraying no hint of the lunatic laughter that rocked him within. He was a fool, there was no doubt about it, but lately he had discovered that he enjoyed being a fool and that it gave him a sense of contentment unknown to him before he had become one.
Walking the streets he encounters a man whose face is obscured behind a big beard, long hair and a scarf, who gives him an “incredulous stare”, quite likely for his similarity to his brother. That may be Charlie Mercer. However the missing person who takes up most of this novel is not Clarence Larkin but Marian, the girlfriend of his current flatmate Weber. Marian died in the past year as well, from a drug overdose that was taken to be a suicide. The description of her last night takes up the long central chapter “Hour Of Lead”, and on either side we have a kaleidoscopic view of her life and death from several viewpoints around her. There are also chapters narrated in the third person by the narrator that sees how it all fits together.
Marian was already tiring of her hard-living lifestyle and the crew of hedonists and hangers-on that she knows in the world of vaguely creative people. She is working as an illustrator at the time of her death, having moved here from Chicago in search of a more fulfilling range of options. That dream is now dying as she gets nearer to 30, and is ready to move on from the scene.
Really, ever since she took up with Weber almost she’s been so sort of serious, in not a very nice way at all. When she used to be so much fun. I can remember Marian with a speedball in her, she could be absolutely devastating. So easy to be with too, but all that’s a long time gone.
Amongst the spectators of suicide is a dwarf street hustler who watched as
…it appeared to me she progressed to the authentic Beverly Hills diet: stop eating and start doing coke. The composition of the social circle changed too, there got to be a lot of these reedy-looking girls and guys, tres chic to be sure but also with that special hollowed-out look of the college-educated junkie.
New York is changing now as well, as rents go up, the word “yuppie” becomes well known, and there are fancy new coffee shops starting. There are wild guys living alone in apartments and going out to kick up fights, and the cops are tired of chasing after them. Everyone in this world has reached an end and can’t see a new destination to head towards.
Marian’s eyes roamed the ceiling now, looking for some place to rest. She closed them and nausea started up like an animal awakening after hibernation. Not good. She opened her eyes and fixed them on the post at the lower left corner of the bed. The conviction came to her that the party was really over now.
Marian’s body is sent back to Chicago for burial, but her New York crew have their own memorial service, and her little cousin Gwen takes an honest view of the journey so far, that doesn’t sentimentalise what came before.
Never since had she been quite so at home in the world, not like she always imagined her mother, her aunt, to have been. In the pictures they both looked so young, and in fact Gwen’s mother had been only nineteen. Ten years younger than she herself was now, Gwen recognised with a physical wriggle as if she’d been pricked…
Of course her mother and her aunt had probably both married blind: two brothers bent on doubling and redoubling their money and who’d succeeded very well at that, almost beyond dreams of avarice. They’d moved their wives and children out of central Chicago and slowly across the subdivisions and at last to the big houses in Winnetka, from which there was nowhere left to go. That enormous house with its endless, bland appointments, a cocoon that answered every wish or need almost before it could be fully formed, articulated. Impossible to be unhappy there. It had never been heartless luxury, not for anyone involved in it. She and Marian had been well and truly cared for, prized and treasured through and through. But Marian had slit the silken tent to slip out into a harder world, and Gwen, more shyly and with more painful hesitation, had finally followed through the rent.
It remained a mystery to her, exactly why she’d had to go, but mysterious or not it was absolutely so. Childhood’s world turned out to be a backward lobster trap; instead of its exit it concealed its entrance. But inside or outside, Gwen’s place had always been nowhere.
The end is to leave New York, and Gwen has a taste of that as she travels out to the holiday cottage Marian’s friends have all booked to for first weekend of Spring. She arrives early and realises it’s the anniversary of her death. Time to start taking care of domestic business.
She would live for a long time, probably, but now she knew she would not sleep, not tonight, and so she went into the house and found a broom and began to sweep the kitchen floor.
Soldier’s Joy (1989) is the longest of these novels. Set in rural Tennessee, there is a great deal of detail about the work of planting, tending and harvesting on a small farm, as well practicing the banjo and learning the skills of drop-thumb and clawhammer playing, and trying to get gigs on the country music circuit. Two of the characters spent some time in New York but now that’s a distant country, less important to them than Vietnam, where they served recently.
The time is from 1970-2. Laidlaw has been honourably discharged, after serving several tours and ending up losing some toes that leaves with a permanent limp. Getting back to California “he had no heart for any kind of celebration.” He buys a rusty old Chevy and drives all the way to Virginia, with not much food or sleep along the way. This civilian world is strange and hard to read at first. He gets back to his dad’s old property near Nashville. The big house burned down when daddy died, it seems he upset an oil lantern when he collapsed. Laidlaw came home for the burial, then went out again. He must now try to make a home in one of the smaller buildings on the grounds, that used to be rented out. The rooms are full of “abandonings”, items left behind by previous tenants.
But these details are not filled in right away. The past is slowly given to us, with little clues first of all, such as Laidlaw’s wariness about leaving lit cigarettes lying about. He is living in a constant insomniac present moment, haunted by unexplained figures such as Sevier, his old commanding officer. At first Sevier exists as a sketchy authority figure handing out tough-guy advice and orders. Later he becomes a three-dimensional image of a comradely cynic, smoking joints with the grunts and happy to introduce them to his wife and friends back on leave in Japan. Everyone who went out knows that the structure of US involvement was full of deadweights and skimmers. Clemson, another old Nashville boy who was working in Quartermasters Corps, is known to have been running some rackets by dipping in the supplies. Laidlaw does well to stay “expressionless” when they meet again back home. Clemson’s “smile of canned heartiness daubed across his flattish face.
Goodbuddy’s drop-in had given him a real turn, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. It might have been that rapacious greed that always shone so brightly through his chummy manners, or maybe just the way the very sight of him conjured up the whole REMF constellation all over again. Goodbuddy Clemson, the quintessential Rear Echelon Mother ______ Oh what was the use of thinking about all that?
He doesn’t want to think about the past at all, but he can’t avoid it, and the subterranean images and sounds keep breaking up into his surface consciousness, which is moving slowly and with limited attachments.
There was no guilt involved in quitting on the house, as there would have been if he’d given up entirely on the garden. Nothing in the house was growing, nothing relied on him for life. Nevertheless he had at times a vague suspicion that the tenants’ abandonings, shut behind their doors, remained in some half-animate state of being. They had an aura about them that disturbed him in the same ill-defined fashion that the patina of humanness caked to the walls of the front room had done. Occasionally, at the moment of his midnight wakings, he might feel that aura coalesced into a presence, but it never got more definite than that, did not become an image or a voice. What shadows marked the room by night were plainly cast by the things he chose to keep there; Laidlaw did not believe in ghosts because he could not afford to.
This novel is entirely narrated in the third person, and divided into 5 sections. The first two overlap in time, as we get the separate stories of Laidlaw and Rodney Redmon. One scene connecting the two is told twice, close by each of the two men. Rodney is the son of one of the old tenants who used to live on the Laidlaw’s property, though Laidlaw’s dad kicked them out for bootlegging. Rodney is slightly older than his childhood friend, and has had a longer journey around the world. He moved to New York, but got sent to prison for “Some liquor store anybody but a country cousin would have known was a fort.” He opted to join up rather than serve a sentence, and when he was out there he got an offer of a job back home from Clemson. This was his chance to be the first black partner in the property business, but it turned out he was the one who got sent to jail when a dubious development deal fell apart. Now out on parole, he can only get a warehouse job where he has to deal with careless white guys who don’t care too much about his safety and will have a fight about it after. Meanwhile Prester, the friend who went with him to New York, has converted to Islam, taken the name Raschid and come back to Nashville to run Mosque 37 and preach the message to the unbelievers.
”…What I’m doing here may look foolish to you. At one time it might have seemed so to me too. I’ve been up and down in the world and I’ve had things and then lost them. Time’s come in my life when I want to have something I can’t lose… You’re a library of smart remarks. You wouldn’t be here now if you had any other place to be. Like you were saying a minute back, the world is full of alternatives.”
Amongst those alternatives is the message of peace and cross-racial unity preached by the revivalist Brother Jacob, who is hated by the local Klan. The Klan send out angry messages to people they dislike, which includes Laidlaw. We may assume this is due to him having a black buddy, but it could also have a simpler motive, as someone would like Laidlaw to hurry up and sell out so that another fancy development scheme can come and go and rotate some money around.
The interplay between Laidlaw and Redmon is rather like a Hollywood tough guy buddy movie, with mild wisecracks and doubletalk flying back at the white guy whenever he cues it in with some naïve comment. Perhaps his disorientation has make him forget he grew up in this culture, and there was already some murky business involving the FBI some years earlier that has passed into local folklore. Tension can build rapidly into violence, as in Redmon’s trouble at the warehouse. Laidlaw has to remember all the tactical skills Sevier taught him for a night-time confrontation with anonymous enemies who want to burn his house down, and he gets them into a different kind of firefight. The clue to who is producing the KKK letters comes from the corny old twist of a typewriter having a distinctive flaw on one letter. For the final battle against the Klan’s move on Brother Jacob, our boys join up with another of their old combat buddies, who turns out to living out in country in Tennessee as well, with his own private arsenal.
Nothing in this story celebrates rural Southern culture as a great form of life in itself. Even banjo playing may be more trouble than it’s worth. “The music was no better or worse than rain pounding on a loose tin roof… Here was what people meant, Laidlaw supposed, when they complained that bluegrass music all sounded the same.” “Soldier’s Joy” is one of the old tunes Laidlaw and his band try to play.
But the lasting impression on Laidlaw comes from Brother Jacob:
…Laidlaw had the perplexing suspicion that no matter what use he’d planned to make of it the preacher had meant what he was saying all along.
”The point is, what did He do when He was with us? He loved people, that’s what He did. Only not with a fool’s blind love, the way some misremember it now. He loved out of the full understanding. He’d see down through every darkest turn of your soul, know you better than you know yourself, and love you still in spite of it all. Saint Paul called that charity. And charity is God among us, even to this day. And that’s what I believe.”
Barking Man and Other Stories (1990) collects up works since Zero db, and shows a widening of interest and also an ageing of the narrative perspective, which is now removed from the hopeful or naïve young men of the earlier stories. The ten stories are grouped in to 2 sections of 5, taking up roughly the same number of pages; it’s not clear why they are so arranged, as there is no simple divide in style between the two halves.
In the first part, we start with “Holding Together”, a story told from the viewpoint of a Chinese mouse trying to maintain its sense of self after being sold in a batch to an American family. This is faintly similar to Kafka’s “Investigations Of A Dog”, but the narrator has inexplicably extensive awareness of the world around him, in addition to knowledge of I Ching, which he depends upon for guidance. He must also provide leadership to two other Chinese mice, insisting on their difference from the “uncivilised Occidental mice… They have no history, no trove of legend, no systematic memory.”
A thematic trace of that story can also be heard in “Black And Tan”, concerning a sad old widowed farmer. After years of raising and training dogs for the local police, he has the idea of providing a foster home for delinquent boys as an alternative to sending them to institutions. The local magistrate goes along with this idea, and it is successful.
You couldn’t miss the difference in those boys, between the time they got dropped off out there and the time they got picked up again. You’d drive one of them out there locked into the back like something that had rabies, maybe, but you went back to go get him, likely he’d look like somebody you could trust to ride in the front seat alongside of you. He would be saying Yes sir and No sir and standing up straight and looking you in the eye.
Even when faced with the challenge of young Don Bantry (“they wouldn’t have him at the reform school again, just flat-out wouldn’t.”), Jackson succeeds, but the result is not the feel-good ending we might expect. “It ain’t any different than breaking an animal, what I been doing to them boys.”
“Customs Of The Country” is the monotonous monologue of a woman whose life has fallen apart. She now lives alone, and we slowly learn the details of how her family was broken up. He husband was stealing drugs from the stores at the hospital he worked in as a porter, and got caught “driving like a blind man… messed up on whisky and ludes… the back seat of the car was loaded up with all that he had lately stole out of the hospital.” Without, she is soon suffering withdrawal symptoms from losing her supply of Dilaudid, and in her feverish irritation she throws young Davey across the kitchen, breaking his leg. At the hospital, when asked how it happened
All I could do was scream and jabber like a crazy person, and it ended up I stayed in that hospital a good few days myself. They took me for a junkie and I guess I really was one too, though that was the first time I’d known it.
She loses her child to foster parents and loses hope that she’ll get him back. Two dramatic moments occur that might signal a break or new beginning in her life, but,
I can’t say I felt sorry for busting that guy, though I didn’t enjoy the thought of it either. I just didn’t know what difference it had made, and chances were it had made none at all. Kind of a funny thing, when you thought about it that way. It was the second time in my life I’d hurt somebody bad, and the other time I hadn’t meant to do it at all. This time I’d known what I was doing for sure, but I still didn’t know what I’d done.
“Finding Natasha” is a return to the junkies hanging out in Washington Square. Natasha is found
… head lolled back, mouth a little open, hands stretched palms up on her knees. When he gets a little closer he can even see her eyes darting under the closed lids, looking at the things she’s dreaming of. Man, she’s way too thin, she’s got bad-looking tracks, infected, and it’s a fifty-fifty chance she’s dying, but Stuart won’t think about any of that right now, just keeps on walking, up into the moment he’s believed in for so long.
“Dragon’s Seed” drops into a sensational horror style, a tale of an elderly sculptress drifting into dementia and tormented by the demons that raise her awareness of the evil all around her in the world.
In the second half are 2 long stories set away from the US. “Barking Man” is set amongst a fairly well-off family in west London, where the younger brother Alf is prone to fits of imitating a barking dog. Sessions with a hypnotist are not very successful in dealing with his underlying anxieties.
”I don’t know why,” he said. “I just don’t know.” His arms were pasted to the leather arms of the deep dark chair, his head lolled, his eyeballs spiralled behind their lids.
”You know,” the hypnotist murmured softly. “Oh yes, you know very well.”
”I didn’t want to know,” said Alf. “What would have been the use of that?”
”Knowledge is power,” the hypnotist suggested.
A galvanic shudder emerged from the reaches of Alf’s autonomic nervous system and shook him to his finger ends.
”No it’s not,” he said loudly. “Not when you know everything and can’t change any of it.”
“Petit Cachou” is the story of three different kinds of American encountering each other in Menton in the south of France. Ton-Ton Detroit is a washed-up old hustler from Cleveland, now barely making a living as a peddlar on the streets and smoking crack when he can get it. He meets young Clay Powell Simpson and tries to help him, as he’s flat broke after failing to get lucky at Monte Carlo. Simpson spots an opportunity with the teenage daughter of the Ventura family, prosperous white US tourists.
“Witness” is a short, bleak account of a released convict having his revenge. No message is stated but it would seem to be a rejoinder to liberal optimism about rehabilitation. “Move On Up” relates a day in the life of a deadbeat guy trying to survive the “gray empty time” roaming the streets of New York, trying to make a living with odd labouring work, and brooding on an old neighbour who died from a crack overdose. “A pile of rags on the circular benches in the corner of the park caught his attention, but there was no one inside it.”
“Mr Potatohead In Love” is the relatively light, comical finale, describing a strange, Joker-like character reeling around New York.
With a helical movement she takes his hand, and –O-, that grace note thrills down through him, searching out his loneliness, his longing, his exaltation…
Doctor Sleep (1991) is set in London, but its central character is a New Yorker. Adrian Strother is living in Notting Hill and working as a hypnotherapist. The time is the 80s, with Thatcher and Norman Tebbit still in charge, and a passing reference in the news to the true-life (and still unsolved) disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh and her meeting with “Mr Kipper” places the time as 1986. It must be the last weeks of August since preparations for the Notting Hill Carnival are mentioned many times.
There are other young women disappearing, but their bodies are being found, as a serial killer seems to be at work. Strother has an unstable relationship with Clara, a British painter he met in a Chelsea pub. Many of his clients are unstable, with drug problems they won’t talk about until they’re in a trance, and also secret somnambulant behaviours. Strother himself has trouble with insomnia. He had a dark time with drugs and bad behaviour back in his turbulent youth in NYC and doesn’t need to reminded by old friends from those years. As wit the novels set in New York, this pays close attention to geographical detail and tells us which streets are being walked and stalked at all times.
He has friends who are sceptical about faith-healing and other unconventional ideas that he takes seriously. He is fascinated by Hermetic philosophy and the ideas of Robert Fludd and Giordano Bruno. In the novel there are illustrations of some of the works referred to, when Adrian visits the British Museum. “Integrae Natura Speculum Artisque Imago” is a frontispiece, and other specimens appear before the 3 parts of the story. The Parts are titled “Ultriusque Cosmi Historia, Et cetera and so on”, “Ars Memoriae”, and “A Love Supreme”. That gives the best guide to the argument of Strother’s position, such as it is, which is to finally insist on the importance of love (and not force) in human relationships (with each other, and the world) over and above the theorizing about whether or not matter and life are mechanical. Several times Adrian is politely taking a stand against some (perceived) crude reductionism coming from his friends. He sees such talk as symptomatic of the same malaise he perceives in some of his patients. He doesn’t have a great feeling about his own role in the process.
Oh very well, Miss Peavey, I’ll solve your problem for you. No, let’s be accurate between me and myself – I won’t solve it, but I’ll mask it.
She was a half decent subject, in fact. She went in deep and fairly fast but even in trance it was no fun for her to contemplate wide open spaces. I understood well enough how she felt, or at least I thought I did. Every day she shot up the lift toward the top of that dreadful tower, she stopped feeling attached to anything much at all. Whenever she looked out the window she stopped believing in the floor. She was losing faith in the safety net, which is a work of faith alone. And as it got worse she didn’t even trust the sidewalk to be solid anymore. Getting off my doorstep and also into her cab cost her the effort it might have cost me to swing across St. Paul’s dome on a flying trapeze.
But she was the sort of person I could fix. I’d get her deconditioned right enough, not the work of a moment, but I could do it. Not the sort of problem you had to follow deep, though perhaps you could if you cared to. She felt like she was falling, but was really just stuck. She was doing a number with her clothes and accessories and the put-on accent, but it wouldn’t have fooled her countrymen for a second, though it was enough to confuse me.
British readers may also be confused by some of the voices in this book, which are very definitely modern British strained through American eardrums before recording and probably sounding a bit nearer to incantations of medieval Latin. There are many places that Strother haunts, in addition to his consulting room and the Reading Room: he practices at a martial arts club, and does a stage hypnotism act at a cabaret night. But the murky, multi-stranded plot also has him called in to assist Scotland Yard with their inquiries, whilst a gloomy gangster and his horrible henchmen are getting in his field of view.
Back then, when it was all fresh to me, it only made me feel the more alive. Even the Hermetic prediction of the death of the soul – For darkness will be preferred to light; it will be thought better to die than to live; none will raise his eyes towards heaven; the pious man will be thought mad; the impious, wise; the frenzied will be thought brave; the worst criminal, a good man. The soul and all beliefs attached to it, according to which the soul is immortal by nature or foresees that it can obtain immortality as I have taught you – this will be laughed at and thought nonsense… And who after all is to say that’s wrong?
There was a screen adaptation, done by the BBC. It greatly simplified the plot lines and had a properly sensational occultist climax. Goran Visnjic played Strother, and Madison must have been ok with it since he has a quick cameo as one of his patients.
Save Me, Joe Louis (1993) is the bleakest and tightest of these novels. The characters ricochet around between scenes of violence and manic chases, with little reflection on the present or their pasts. These are men resigned on going to hell, and with no pretentious speeches to make about it. This is all narrated from the outside.
Their lives are intersected by another character: Lacy, a young female photographer enrolled in a “program” (presumably a postgraduate art course) at some institute in Philadelphia. In the prologue she has to go for a dinner with Marvin, a creepy older academic (“There was a school of student opinion that it was easiest to just sleep with Marvin a time or two and get it over with”). He smirks at her determination to go on a project taking pictures around her native Tennessee (“I think your accent’s coming back… You’ll regress. You’re trying to go against the natural course of your development.”) He’s also unimpressed by the pictures she has made from an old roll of film she’s rediscovered – pictures taken years ago, that include her cousin Tom Macrae.
The action starts properly with Macrae himself in Battery Park, in New York. He was in the US Army but has gone AWOL and is now sleeping rough. He encounters Charlie Mercer, who’s been hanging around since the end of Waiting For The End Of The World. Although he is only referred to as “Charlie”, he mentions details of his past life that fit with the other novel. I also had the identity confirmed by Madison himself in an email long ago. The time is the early 90s – Charlie describes himself as in his 40s, he was born in 1949, and Bea asks Macrae if he was involved in the operation against Noriega.
Charlie shows Macrae how the two of them can make a living mugging hapless tourists and dumb kids wandering the streets looking for drug dealers. It’s not a great living, and it’s a risky business as they usually have to escort a victim to an ATM to get the cash out – New York has moved on, everyone’s using plastic now. When they hit a pair of college girls Macrae has to hold one of them hostage whilst Charlie gets their pay, and he has to listen to her anxious recollections of date rapes on campus. But that’s still a remote world of privilege compared to the life they boys share in a cheap room down amongst the dealers and working girls.
Sex stuff bored her and no wonder. Macrae too. She liked kung fu, or Schwarzenegger or Stallone. In the huge half-gutted theaters down Forty-Second Street, she liked to wander from clump to clump of the loose-joint dealers and street rappers with their blasters beating low who came to the movies like they were cocktail parties.
The boys are soon mentioned on TV news, due to them hitting some marks who were too rich for NYPD to ignore. Macrae attacks the pimp Big Tee in an impulsive surge of moral disgust at his attitude towards his employees. This does not lead to good consequences, but Macrae closes the matter with a carefully planned and startlingly brutal assault that leaves Big Tee begging to be shot and put out of his agony.
Macrae thought that if he puked, the vomit would back up on the stocking and strangle him. It was not working. As he shattered Big Tee’s kneecaps and shinbones he could feel the sadness to which Rafael had referred breaking open inside him to gnaw like an acid at his core. Every blow was struck for nothing and his anger had been lost, unconsummated. He only had to keep on with it because it had all been determined from the moment when Bea first spoke to him on Forty-Second Street.
These boys have to get out of town after another blundered crime gets Macrae shot at. Stealing a car they head to “Charm City” Baltimore. The first bar they roll into Macrae decides to rob the till, and they head back to the home of Porter, another casualty they just met. He’s just out of prison for assaulting a guy a year earlier, when he was in a bad state just after his girlfriend had a miscarriage and didn’t want to see him anymore. The trio carry out a string of half-planned and chaotic stickups, always on the brink of collapsing into slapstick. An impulsive mission to grab some guns from a sports store nearly fails when the sprinkler system comes on and drenches them. Charlie’s overexcitement causes him to fire on some cops, and so the boys have to move again, headed south.
In “Down Home”, Macrae returns to the land around Nashville. Laidlaw is a neighbour of his blind old daddy, and he knows all the trouble he was in. He had a fight with another teenager, and that got him facing prison, so he took the option of military service, just like Redmon did. Redmon makes an appearance, but he’s still keeping away from the big white social gatherings. Porter has never been in this world before – never seen a cow before – but he can sense the chill when he’s only black guy at the hog roast.
The great encounter is meeting Lacy again, now surveying this country like an outsider.
Sometimes she saw below her through the naked trees a barn or a house, and once a doll-sized man on a tractor whose engine noise came to her as a distant, staticky crackle. All the while she kept well back in the trees, though at one time or another she’d known all the people who owned this land and she’d have been welcomed to wander if only she’d asked. But she hadn’t gone calling, hadn’t presented herself… There was something she didn’t want to see them wondering – Did you give it all up and come home this time? Or are you just passing through?
“Passing through” is all that the 3 desperate men are up to, but they have no apparent alternatives, and seem to find the crucial turnings in their lives outside their power.
This was a wrong fork in the criss-cross trails of conversation, which he momentarily pictured as fluorescent lines webbing over a map.
That moment of awareness occurred to Macrae back in New York, but it could have been a premonition of the outlaw’s journey across and down the western US, propelled by Charlie’s gleeful fatalism. They know they’ve been recorded on CCTV and by witnesses, the sums they grab are always disappointing, but he forces the action even when the other two try to be cautious. Unlike other Bell novels, nobody in this story has any religion or structure of discipline. Porter was following a conventional path from teenage gangs and trouble, into mature employment and responsibility, but it all fell apart in his hands and he has no sense of turning back. In his bonding conversation with Macrae, oiled by whisky, Porter says he admired his old daddy and the remote world of honour he associated with.
”My daddy was in that Quartermaster Corps. Lugged him a pick and shovel all over France and Italy. He was too old for the draft but he went and enlisted after Joe Louis did.”
”Is that a fact?”
”They were both Alabama boys, him and Joe Louis,” Porter said. “Joe Louis fought for all of us, what my daddy used to say.”
”I heard that.” Macrae nodded. He picked up the half-pint, drank, and passed it. “When he whipped that Nazi boxer.”
”All of us,” Porter said. “Not all of you.”
Porter invokes Louis again, when he recalls the story that the first American executed in a gas chamber cried “Save me, Joe Louis!” But in this faith only represents force and the power of violence. He can only “save” by physical rescue, and no more successfully than Macrae. Charlie is reliable at coming back for the others, but he has a motive to keep his trail clear.
In the final chapter, Macrae digs a grave in expectation of the final confrontation, and it could as well be used for his own burial. The final encounter here with Lacy is an ambiguous mutual recognition – “They looked as if they were seeing each other for the first time in their lives.” Seeing the truth would be as likely the end of the relationship, and they both have other places to go – Lacy can go back to Philadelphia, and Macrae is going to get busted for that final stickup he did earlier.
Ten Indians (1996), is set in Baltimore and is very near to the territory later worked over in The Wire TV series. This is a world of drug-selling gangs in violent inner city neighbourhoods, and a hopeless white idealist who thinks he can save the world, or at least his city.
We have a clear fix on when this story is occurring: in the opening chapter, gang leader Trig hears a radio news report.
Rosa Parks, the radio say. Rosa Parks, the lady who kicked off the bus boycott which set my people free if that what you want to call it, been beat up and robbed in her Detroit apartment and everybody all upset and she under police protection.
That story was reported on 31st August 1994.
Trig hears the news on his way to the prison infirmary, after being stabbed by a white inmate who belongs to the Aryan Nation gang. This sets him off reminiscing about the recent past that put him where he is. Trig’s inner monologues take up the start and end chapters, in between are ten numbered sections, each containing one death in the war between different gangs (Johnny B.Goode counted down his crew as “Indians” in the restaurant at the start of Washington Square Ensemble, but there is no other connection between the two novels). The chapters that are narrated by residents of the Poe Homes housing project have their names at the start. Not all of them are gang members, we also hear from Sharmane. The chapters in between narrate from a third person perspective, and are focused on the white characters, but we can hear their thoughts when we need to know them. “Cultural tourist” is a fair description of most of the whites who wander by in this world, as Sharmane notes early on:
Some white people came driving down in a Volvo – lost. You get a few like that every day, looking for the Poe House it ownself, which it’s right there at the end of our block… So Tamara yell out “Looking for the Poe House? There it is!”… Inside the Volvo, the man and woman look at each other confused, then he back it up half a block and into a parking place. Out they get, make sure the car is locked up a few hundred times… They go down, scoping nervous all around theyself, and start reading the plaque screwed into the pale rosy brick of the little house Poe was supposed to have lived at. I been in there one time myself – it ain’t nothing. Two rooms down and one on top and none of’m bigger than a closet. Poe Homes nicer, where we stay.
The central white guy is Mike Devlin, with a comfortable TV sitcom family life. He pleads off not helping his teenage daughter Michelle with her maths homework as “I’m a liberal arts major”. He works as a child psychiatrist.
His patients were children from three to eighteen whose families were well-to-do or well-insured, and often both. They came from the same social stratum to which Devlin and his wife belonged: educated, professional folk… Although the neighborhood was overshadowed by a large state hospital, Devlin’s practice was now exclusively private, had been so for almost ten years… The practice was lucrative enough that he might have afforded to work considerably less hours than he did, and that was a thought with some attractions, because of late it seemed to require a certain gray determination for him to rise and face his day.
Bored with dinner parties, bored with classy films, worried with evidence that Michelle is exploring sex and drugs already.
The frozen television screen displayed the face of an English actress, and overbred-looking, watery blonde who had recently become very popular among discriminating moviegoers. Her lips were parted and her weak chin tucked, locked by pause mode in the mid-expression of some delicate nuance of emotion… He wondered idly about Michelle, less with concern than curiosity. Not where she was or what she was doing, but what she might be thinking and feeling. What would it feel like, Devlin wondered, not to already know exactly what would happen?
Devlin is already experienced at Tae Kwon Do, and so his quest to feel something new leads him to set up a new school in an old shop unit near Poe Homes. Soon Trig and his gang are signing up for lessons, and so our jaded old liberal gets increasingly drawn into the trap of playing at White Saviour, a psychiatric condition he has never had to diagnose professionally. Michelle is drawn in with him, and is present in the tense thriller climax, as he tries to make his way up a ruined block to sneak into the room where the two gang rival gang leaders are facing off.
The slow advance in to the chamber is a deadly accurate unrolling of incidental details that turn out to be essential.
Many of the apartment doors hung open, and some didn’t have any doors at all, but at 6-D the door was steel and secured with a massive padlock. Devlin opened it with no difficulty and stuck the lock in his pocket with the key still inserted. He went in, using the asp of the padlock to prop the door open and admit a couple of inches of dim light.
A one-bedroom apartment, strictly empty except for a layer of dust on the bare wooden floor. The dust was tracked, and Devlin could recognise the waffle-prints of the Timberland boots some of Trig’s crew had favored. Thick iron burglar bars were bolted across all the windows, inside the plywood sheets that sealed the building’s face. In the kitchen alcove, a scale and two jumbo boxes of baking soda stood on the counter, along with several neat rows of the little black-capped crack vials, ready for service. Also a large flashlight, with a fluorescent tube.
…He backed out of the closet, ducking under the hanger bar. The jacket seemed to bind his arms so he took it off and dropped it in a corner. A muffled clunk when the padlock struck the floor though the leather. His bare torso was coated with a thin rime of dried sweat, but it wasn’t so cold inside the building, and he still felt loose and flexible from the exercise earlier. From where he stood, he could no longer hear the voices muttering.
It’s not a surprise that Devlin does not survive his courageous but half-planned rescue mission – Trig notes at the start that
Out of all them dead people Devlin the one I was the maddest at. Because the others, they didn’t have much choice the way I seen it. But you, Devlin, you were free to choose. You been to college, got a good-money job, house in a nice neighborhood. You were white. People cared for you. So why did you go and waste yourself and leave the ones that loved you all alone like I left mine?
There is no deep or noble answer hidden in the chapters between the chapters of first personal tales from Poe Homes. He was bored and distracted and was naïve in the presence of guns, undoubtedly because of his assumed immunity, which was well-founded in that gang members on these streets know that shooting a white guy will bring down more trouble on them. Michelle is already heading on to college and a bright career of her own in which all these youthful adventures and tragedy will give her a great personal statement to offer up.
Anything Goes (2002) is set around a year in the life of a bar band. The cover image on the first edition shows a solitary young man walking toward the horizon down a country lane with a guitar on his back. This suggests a story about a solo musical genius, spitting out personal wisdom on a Dylanesque journey… but the contents are nothing like it. This story is about being in a group, that need to be working together, on stage and off, just to keep earning a living. That’s the limit of their ambition most of the time.
Jesse plays bass, and guitar when he needs to stand-in for absent guitarists. The group are called Anything Goes, named by their lead guitarist Perry, who has some background in more successful outfits. Perry’s the singer right now. They tried out a girl singer in the past, and it got them a lot more work, but she moved on. Despite the name he chose for them, Perry is quite insistent on the limited repertoire they will play.
…we didn’t play punk and we didn’t play grunge, we definitely didn’t play any originals and we also (praise the Lord!) didn’t play Top 40. We did play Chicago blues standards, and white boy blues like Clapton and Allmans and Stevie Ray Vaughan, plus rock warhorses from Hendrix and the Stones and Neil Young, or we might even take it a little bit country too if that’s what people seemed to want.
But the second guitarist Chris does want to play some of his original compositions, and so Jesse and the drummer Allston have to hold things together whilst the other boys have their fights. Jesse doesn’t care for grunge at all, apart from liking “Lithium”, and the novel opens with him having a dream that he is with Kurt Cobain. Not that Cobain is any kind of hero – but his presence does give a period for this book, occurring some time after his death in 1994, at a time when Counting Crows are becoming successful. There are no references to the internet whatsoever, but then again there are no references to the Clintons or any other aspect of America in the mid and late 90s. This is a story set amongst people who are simply unaware of that wider world. Maybe the college students on Spring Break are tuned in, but these players aren’t.
Perry and Jesse live together in a run-down old property (“It must have been a grand house at one time, though now you could hardly tell by looking if anybody even lived there.”) with broken down trucks and other scrap littering the front, no TV inside, and someone’s cannabis crop growing far out the back of their land. This is Nashville, full of music shops and small studios that employ the wannabes and failures who are between different bands on endless tours. Anything Goes can expect to put in most of the year on the road, going around the circuits of “Black Cat” venues out to the East Coast, and then down to Florida, and then up North. It’s enough money to live on, provided they don’t get robbed, but it’s not a life with much of a future. There are fringe benefits in sleeping in motels most nights, sometimes with female admirers of the night’s show. Jesse is more troubled by his past, and the question of his ethnicity.
I caught sight of my face again in the glass of the door as I pulled it toward me, heavy on its pressure hinge. That was the face she would have seen, without the sunglasses obviously. Black hair like hers with a little wave, slicked back with the natural oil to frame big long-lashed eyes, Bambi eyes, like the girls would say. Small gold circle through the right ear and the eyes molten in my olive face. The dark skin would have made her take me for some kind of Latino like a lot of people did. It was the soft eyes and long lashes that made the face too pretty for a man. Pretty boy, like my father used to say, leading up to another beat-down or coming off of one or maybe sometimes in the middle. I known it without him telling me, since my first teens. Same for me as for a good-looking woman, I thought sometimes – it would get you attention all right only half the time it was attention you didn’t want. And the Big Blondie types always wanted to mother me, press me into the space between their Playmate breasts, but I didn’t want that. Fact of it was, I never met my mother.
All Jesse knows of his background is that his mother was Melungeon, but Dad lost track of her after she walked out and left him with the baby. The Melungeons are the most marginal community of the South, with weird myths about their origins elsewhere in the world. Jesse has to check in a library to find out what his deep history is supposed to be.
Everybody more or less agreed that a Melungeon wasn’t either an Indian or an African. The name had been put on them by French trappers; it came from a French word meaning “all mixed up.” The Melungeons weren’t ever thought to be white (except, it seemed, by some of the Indians) even though they spoke English amongst themselves and were Christian. When the white settlers did begin to come, they ran the Melungeons out of the bottomland, up onto the ridges of East Tennessee.
“I known it…” as Jesse’s narrative voice follows the grammar and diction of the other Nashville natives, although without the slurring and abbreviation (“ain’t” and “sump’n” never appear outside reported speech). His style is neat and unpretentious. Descriptions do not go on too long and objects of great significance can only be vaguely designated (“like a cathedral or something”). A visit to a high-class restaurant gets the verdict that “The food was excellent, made you feel on top of the world to eat it.” He is a narrative songwriter, alongside Chris constructing some original compositions on the road. He has no special claim on authenticity, but can at least avoid the clumsy artificiality of the latter’s early efforts.
If you were Chris, what did you want out of this world? Say he was halfway between my age and Perry’s – that would put him something over thirty. He’d been playing around Nashville or on the road for years. He was good enough and connected enough to get session work when he was in town, and he’d toured with at least three bands that almost, almost signed a record deal. Now he was in a band that didn’t even want a record deal…
… The songs weren’t terrible. He worked out of these mail-order books he had on songwriting, which gave them kind of a kitlike quality. You wouldn’t listen to one and come off feeling like you knew that guy that wrote it, the way you got to know Neil Young from listening to his stuff, or just about any songwriter, or hell, you even felt like you knew something about Bonnie Raitt just from the covers she picked to play. Chris’s lyrics were clever sometimes, but it mostly seemed like they were there to fill space between big long guitar solos.
The plot of the novel makes it suitable for Hollywood, with plenty of moments of dramatic tension and revelations. When the new singer Estelle is presented for her audition to the rest of the group, she of course struggles, and Perry is unimpressed until she suddenly comes good just as he’s “halfway out the door”. The guy that Chris first introduces as an A&R man turns out to be another wanderer who just happens to be an amazing guitarist, and is instantly available to fill the vacancy when the other quits the band. Estelle’s relationships with Rose-Lee, and with Jesse’s dad, are not what they seem at first. It’s not hard to work out who Jesse’s dad is sleeping with on New Year’s Eve.
The story divides into ten chapters each named after a song or album. Life on the road has plenty of violence and rough nights in the cheap bars, strip clubs and gambling dens, and the gangsters who will come after the unpaid debts, and the fathers or partners of the one-night stands that should have been avoided. We also have scenes where our characters find themselves out of their world, or seeing new sides to it. Working in Charleston presents a chance to visit a better class of restaurant than they’re used to.
The soft deferential tones of the waiters was just about all you heard. I noticed especially how quiet Allston was… Everybody at the other tables felt rich, and by that I mean rich with old Southern money. Excepting of course the couple of parties of black folks who were well dressed and well spoken and you figured well monied too – but you could bet nobody in their family ever fought for the Confederacy. You could also bet, go back twenty years or whatever, no black person could have stepped through the front door of the place. That gave me an idea of what kind of cat had got Allston’s tongue. I looked from him to Perry and wondered if Perry had just failed to think of this, but that wasn’t likely – there wasn’t much that Perry missed… But when we were done dinner, I split with Allston, away from the others. When you went out the door of that restaurant you were facing the little end of a long low building that, we knew from Perry’s history lectures, had been the slave market – Before the War. (In Charleston you didn’t have to ask which war ‘cause there hadn’t ever been but one).
As the tour moves down to Florida, Jesse and Estelle have a symbolic moment as outsiders accidentally gatecrashing someone else’s party, and being tolerated as long as they stay at the margins and don’t take too much.
We were just coming up to a fancy hotel, with a half-circle driveway curved in front of stone steps, and a high stone façade like a cathedral or something. Taxis and limos were letting people off, and there was quite a stream going up the stairs. Somehow we flowed into it, neither of us saying we intended to. The lobby was grand, fancier even than that Charleston hotel, all high ceilings and chandeliers, the help standing around with tuxedos on. We kept on drifting with the group we’d come in with, Stell smiling around carefully in this way she had, her mouth shut to hide the front tooth she lacked….
By this time we’d caught on it must be a private party back here, but nobody seemed to object to our attending it. Stell looked as good as any woman there and the men were all dressed casual as me. There was a lot of fresh sunburn, and tan-lotion smell. Nobody seemed to expect anything of us – they all just kept humming amongst themselves, in what might as well have been a foreign language for all we cared. Smooth gents in white coats kept coming up and asking us to eat another scallop wrapped in bacon pasted on sugarcane, or to please be good enough to drink another glass of champagne.
The Color Of Night (2011) came with a much longer dedication than usual. Before the names are thanked there is this preamble:
I have always said that my work is dictated to me by daemons. People probably think that’s a figure of speech; maybe this book will prove it literal. Surely it is the most vicious and appalling story ever to pass through my hand to the page, so inevitably some people will hate it.
Some of the names are thanked “for believing in its value when no one else did”.
The epigraph is also longer than usual, a slice from Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn about forgiveness and varieties of emotional and moral transference, including the observations: “The victims of power, and any power has its victims, are themselves infected.”
A thumbnail of the plot of this “vicious and appalling story” would be: Manson Family survivor lives to see fellow cult survivor in TV footage of 9/11, so tracks her down. This has first-personal narration, but the tone is rather dead and affectless, and we will come to see why. The chapters are short and cycle around three different phases of the timeline: the present day of late 2001; the early life of Mae Chorea (living and working under a different surname for most of her life); and her period in the People cult in California circa 1969.
First of all we have the observational detail of life amongst the lowest levels of the US working class. Mae was working as a blackjack teller in Las Vegas on 9/11, and of course her kind don’t get luxuries like being up to date with the news.
Inside the casino, it never happened. Nothing there can enter in. Only the whirl of lights and the electronic burbling of machines, rattle of dice in the craps table cups, an almost inaudible whisper of cards, the friction-free hum of roulette wheels turning. Nothing is permitted to change.
It is a sort of fifth-rate hell, and I a minor demon posted to it. A succubus too indifferent to suck. I have my regulars, of course. Sometimes I even know their names. I deal them cards and the lose money. Occasionally one of them wins, of course, but not for long.
As soon as she gets back to her trailer-park and has watched the news, she has it taped over and over on VHS cassettes and can watch it again and again in a loop, an ecstasy of destruction.
I could watch it again, as much as I wanted, since the TV kept playing it over and over like a game of Tetris no one could win. No limit to how many times I could consume, could devour those images. Again and again, the rapid swelling, ripening to the bursting point, and then the fall. The buckling, crumbling, blooming outward in that great orb or ruin before it showered all its matter to the ground. Those gnatlike specks that swirled around it proved to be mortals, springing out of the flames. Wrapped in the shrouds of their screaming, they sailed down.
The great shock:
So I saw Laurel for the first time again, Laurel kneeling on the sidewalk, her head thrown back, her hands stretched out with the fingers crooked, as weapons or in praise.
She calls up a guy she knows who can find people, and is soon on the move to catch up with Laurel. But we also have the absurd mood of those weeks immediately afterwards.
So then one night Corey got caught chipmunking. Eye in the sky saw him packing his cheeks till it looked like the mumps. Corey had got a little too greedy. And the system wants all its pieces of silver. Counts them every day.
”Your country’s in crisis,” the pit boss told him. “We’re all under attack here,” Marvin said, “And now you steal.”
All of us who could hear this line did our very best to look solemn and dour, though the truth was I wanted to break out laughing, or puke. It seemed to me all those little black globes in the ceiling were pressing down hard on the back of my neck. Like taking a few chips away from the company was some kind of betrayal of God and the flag and apple pie.
In the desert, a mouth:
A fine gray dust blew over the desert. It coated every window, seeped in through every crack. All day the machines ate into the stone of the mountain. The incessant complaint of their alarms as they reversed and then returned to the attack. Between the clatter and the monotone came the whisper of pumps, sucking the aquifers dry. The endless racket of mortal engines, striving to build Babylon.
Gray dust caked in the back of my throat. I longed for my old voices, but heard nothing.
Raze it. Raze it. For the gods’ sake, burn it down.
Getting involved with The People meant falling under the spell of their leaders, named as O_____ and D____ in Mae’s text. When we meet Laurel, “Orpheus” has his name given clearly; it seems that was the name he used to record a few successful folk-rock albums, with assistance from the other People members. The other name, of the cult leader, is clearly Dionysus. Mae relates her story to archetypes encoded in Greek mythology and seems to be aware of the concepts mentioned in the Murdoch quotation at the start of the novel.
Every pimp has that same bag of tricks. And I knew it well but it didn’t help me.
Mae has no illusion about what is going on when she joins the People. She was already working on the street in San Francisco as soon as her money ran out, and she stabbed her pimp when he got too rough and demanding.
When it came to the point, the answer was simple. I just hadn’t known that I already knew. Louie made it easy for me, because when I touched the bayonet against his rib cage, he really didn’t think I’d do it, didn’t know I would until, for him, it was too late.
I’d learned the essence from my brother, long ago when I was small. You don’t have to worry about resistance. Just keep pushing, and it goes right in.
What she already learned from her brother was to become a passive absorber of abuse as they had an incestuous relationship in their teens until he decided to move on and get married. It didn’t stop him getting drafted and ending up and another drug-wrecked casualty like the ones drifting in New York in the 80s, but Mae robbed their suburban parents and made for California. The patterns of behaviour had already been learned far before she joined any death cult. She just hadn’t known what she knew.
Mae’s attempt to contact Laurel triggers various FBI trip wires and sends mysterious men in suits looking for her and asking for her under the original name. She gets away to New York to meet her old mate, and also stop over to view the new epicentre of chaos.
I knew I must be near from the smell. And in this region the buildings were deserted, temporarily sealed with plywood, draped with cautionary banners. The city’s dead core. Three months after the event it seemed impossible that smoke should still be rising from the center of the ruins, and still I seemed to see it, breathe it in.
Again, again, I felt my heart rising. Singing like a blade slashed through the wind.
What stopped me were the relics left by mortals. They began to appear everywhere, dropped on the sidewalk, wired into storm fences, taped crooked to the plywood sheets that sealed the shattered doorways of this zone. Mortals had arranged these things in tribute to their lost ones: photographs and talismans, flowers and strings of beads.
Earlier she stated her reaction to seeing Laurel on the sidewalk on the day when it all burned down, reaching for the unconscious knowledge of herself as exterminating angel:
Just suffer, I said, inside my mind. Don’t try to make anything of your suffering.
Was I talking to Laurel, or myself, or to O____? There was a point where I differed from them. That had been O____’s big mistake, to believe that suffering could be redeemed, instead of polluted, by such a transformation.
Zig Zag Wanderer (2013) is a compilation of 18 stories. It is quirkily arranged in to 2 halves, “Zig – stories from here” and “Zag – stories from there”, arranged so that both present as the first half, depending on which way up the book is held. Captain Beefheart’s music is mentioned in “Petrified Forest”, but not the title story.
“Petrified Forest” returns to the world of Anything Goes, with a musician scraping a living from guitar lessons and playing gigs in clubs. “Parallel Lines” echoes some of the patients Adrian Strother dealt with, as a career-dedicated young New York lawyer finds herself having fantasies about the other girl in her older boyfriend’s life. “Small Blue Thing” is unusual, since it parodically responds to Poe’s “The Raven” from the viewpoint of the bird.
“Two Lives” could have been in Barking Man as it fits the same mood of so much of those stories. A middle-aged guy goes driving on the highway after his divorce is finalised. A deer runs on to the road and he thinks he hit it despite trying his best to avoid the collision. After trying to pass the news on to someone who could take an interest, he spends the night in a motel, and awakes in a state suspended between a sense of invulnerability and a sense of being entirely unconnected from consequences.
He couldn’t even find a dent. It was as if nothing had happened at all….
A shock of dizziness staggered him as he rose, but in an instant it passed and he was unchanged. In spite of everything that had happened, he still did not believe that anything could really hurt him.
“Rabbit, Cycling” is told compellingly from the position of a travelling medical consultant suddenly plunged into a state of aphasic confusion and has to reconstruct his identity from documents he is carrying, and the rules of the world around him from the other customers in a bar. He gradually comes to realise he must have had a “cerebral event”; the final melting away in the last sentence leaves the ending ambiguous.
“I Ain’t Blue” features a young professional couple and their toddler, moving in to a house previously occupied by a lonely old woman.
Peter was a composer who wrote inscrutable modern classical music for a tiny audience of gnomes. It was like listening to higher mathematics, his stuff, and Caitlin loved it. They had met at Juilliard. Now, however, she wrote pop tunes with unusually engaging hooks, and made three times his money. It embarrassed her a little, being such dumb luck, though Peter’s teaching job was still their anchor. At Aspen, where she’d played The Wife (and Mother), she was occasionally recognised, with admiration, envy or contempt she never knew for certain, perhaps a mixture of the three.
Mysterious inexplicable noises disturb the newcomers but this does not settle in to a cliched story of scepticism and the paranormal. Life after death however makes an appearance in the rather sketchy quickie “Summertime”, as a character has a dying vision in the aftermath of a drive-by shooting. “Dragon’s Breath” returns to something like the world of Straight Cut, with a precariously employed journalist getting involved in a side-hustle to move a special package across borders.
“Happy Families Are All Alike” is a shooting script with directions telling us which images are coming up. As a long footnote explains at the start:
”Happy Families Are All Alike” began as a project for a short film by photographer and filmmaker Andrew Moore. Moore devised all the written images on his own without any other text and sent them to Madison Smartt Bell as a series of numbered index cards. Bell wrote the voiceover and the dialogue lines to accompany the images in Moore’s original order of presentation.
The voiceover describes the regular antics of a suburban family of a few decades ago, drifting increasingly in to the strangeness of “clinical psychobabble” and Freudian analysis of the random imagery, and declarations such as “But all organic life is filthy”.
Over to “Zag” – several stories describe recurring characters living in modern Haiti, dealing with the political and physical earthquakes that have stricken the country. Painkillers are being supplied illicitly, including Dilaudid. Haitians returning to the country after time in the US have divided feelings. There is contempt for the smug outsiders who cannot take the importance of religion seriously.
The whiff of danger seemed to be squeezing some pheromones out of the younger people at the far end of the table, but the talk was about religion. Orthodox atheists all but one, they’d ganged up on the one believer, a black man from Francophone Africa who appeared to be too drunk to talk.
Oliver’s sympathies were with the African, though he couldn’t find a viable way to say it. Haiti was a mystical country, and without that it would be nothing. It was God and the spirits that gave the people their fortitude, their resilience, their beautiful heart-melting smiles in the face of the most atrocious adversity the world had ever seen. If Oliver said so he would be instantly written off as a sentimentalist. These people were too well-informed, too certain. They knew the names of all the birds. The young woman at the far end of the table was scoffing at the African, from the redoubt of her secular self-assurance.
“Leadbelly In Paris” depicts the old blues singer on a visit to the city, I don’t know how near or far it gets to historical accuracy. The title story returns to something like the London of Doctor Sleep, as a narrator describes his tender obsession for a homeless man he has observed pushing a trolley around the western postcodes.
But a new day is coming for us, my brother. We will meet once again in our great age. We will be older than dinosaurs then, and our skins will be rougher than the stones. We will meet by the river where the women wash the clothes, and there we will both come out of our skins like snakes. I will put on the garment that you have laid down, my brother, and you will do the same with the one I have shed. Then, truly, I will live your life, and you will live mine.
Behind The Moon (2017) has the most unusual structure of any Bell novel. 79 fairly short chapters are divided in to 11 parts. Each part starts with a page in which a pattern of crudely drawn circles of varying sizes builds up, each circle seemingly randomly placed. Each new version of the pattern simply adds another circle to the previous ones, so the total number is a count of how many chapters we have so far. Within the main text there are also passages of some ideogrammatic script and the unusual mixture of calligraphy and blotches at the start of chapter 26.
This imagery adds another dimension to the story of some teenagers getting lost near some caves and one of them entering a trance in which she seems to psychically transfer to another time. The epigraphs set the frame clearly at the start, referencing shamanism and ancient art. This book describes itself at the start as a “fever dream”. The location is in Montana, not far from the reservations of the Lakota people, and the year is 2010, since Marissa gave birth to Julie 17 years ago in 1993.
The first part is the longest and densest, and introduces us to a setting rather familiar from modern horror films: a group of teenagers away on a break together, discovering that members of the party may have hidden purposes. Julie, Karyn, Marko, Sonny and Jamal drive out to the cliffs on their bikes. Jamal’s bike is underpowered, and of course he’s the outsider who doesn’t see things quite the same as the others. He can notice the old markings on the rock, obscured by the juvenile graffiti tagging of previous teenage visitors. The chatter takes in the topic of “the bear tape”, apparently a notorious authentic of the screams of naïve adventurers who tries to live in the wilderness amongst wild bears and were eaten alive by them. There is a local fixer called Ultimo who has lent the boys some cameras, so maybe this is all a setup to get some other footage.
When Julie realises that the water bottle they have been sharing may be laced with LSD or something similar, she goes crazy and runs out of the campsite. Jamal tries to defend her as the other boys pursue, and she gets lost in the cavern. But none of this is told in a simple linear style. The 30 chapters move forward and back and perhaps sideways in time. There is a moment in the future as someone tried to wake Julie from her coma in the hospital. There is her time in the cave, seemingly blending and dividing from the surfaces, perceiving and unperceiving elements of other beings and observing herself or another self being observed. The external events with the 5 membered party and the violent confrontation between Marko and Jamal are repeated multiple times with variations in action and dialogue. It is unclear if these are alternative timelines or alternative recollections at a later point from an unreliable narrator.
Her hand absorbed into the stone, her whole forearm sinking in, as if into a pool of warm, black oil. She turned her hand to press her cheek against the stone. Under her palm was a hot scratchy something, like a pelt, and she could feel a rough breath lifting and relaxing it.
The second chapter introduces Marissa, a nurse who moved on to social work. She has been practicing spiritual exercises with her priest, Fr. Claude. Claude seems to be interested in syncretic thinking and Jesuit interactions with non-Christian religion in China, and the missed opportunity for similar developments between the Church and the native Americans of the mid-West. During her latest Exercise, Marissa had a vision of a falling body in darkness, and intuited it was the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years ago, when she was an unmarried teenager. The coincidental sudden death of Fr.Claude gives her the impetus to drive all the way to the hospital where she gave birth. Stopping over when she reaches Lakota territory, she sees a shaman who tells her “You have a hollow in your heart”.
When she arrives at the hospital mentions her connection to a nurse who sees her looking distracted, and she is told that “the cave girl” is in the hospital again. She also meets Jamal, waiting at the bedside in the room of the girl who seems to be drifting in and out of consciousness.
The intervening interval saw Jamal run away from the others and eventually get picked up by Highway Patrol. Jamal is an outsider in this world, and is treated as such by most petty authority in case he might forget himself.
No cover here on the open sand. Before, he used to go out with his brothers and some slingshots to hurl rocks at tanks and jeeps, and then they’d scatter through the boulders of another desert, with the large clumsy vehicles lurching after them. Another world.
…Murdo was such a small town that even a random highway patrolman could pull rank on the chief of police, who was comforting himself by bullying Jamal.
Marissa and Jamal travel back to the home town of Julie and her adoptive mum (“It seemed a little ludicrous to talk about the “West Side” of a town no better than ten blocks square.”) This is a marginal zone, with plenty of guys wearing prison tattoos. The local news occasionally report mysterious fires which everyone understands to be home meth labs burning down (“sketcher scumbags”). Jamal’s family are trying to live up to the model of Good Immigrants, with a variety of businesses (the Magic Carpet restaurant is mum runs is attracting customers from out of town), but will still be regarded with suspicion for their background.
The meeting with Julie’s adoptive mum doesn’t get off to a good start, especially when Marissa declares herself to be “the biological mother”.
”…You have no right to be here.”
”I have a wrong!” Marissa shouted. She didn’t know how she’d chosen the word but she said it again, more quietly, as she closed her eyes. I have a wrong. A wrong of my own making. She felt herself falling into it, as into a deep well. An inner space, dark and limitless, with no point of orientation and no light. There was no way to get a foot under her or to begin to find her way out….
Carrie Westover didn’t look angry anymore, just tired. No doubt she had every right to be exhausted. Her feet, which she’d put back on the chair seat, were small, small-boned like her hands, and didn’t really go with the gnarled body, which looked as if armored by battering.
We’re now back near the world of “Customs Of The Country”, written not long before Julie was born. Marissa quietly forgets her old job and moves in at the Westover residence, whilst pondering the alternative lives not lived and their possible co-presence.
There was an infinity of possible lives, and after all she only had this one, but what if all the lives were somehow happening anyway, all at once? There was the Julie who lay unresponsive in this coma that wasn’t really a coma, like Sleeping Beauty waiting for a kiss, and the other Julie Marissa seemed to have seen floating up toward her like a revenant from underwater, her eyes open with some kind of recognition, her mouth about to open with a greeting, her hands flattening, palms out, on the invisible barrier between them.
On pg.180 Marissa becomes “Melissa” – an authorial slip, or an intentional break in the text with an alternative genealogy? The language of cave inscriptions, and blotches and circle patterns, break in to the text in later chapters as well. Marissa’s experiences are unstable, and one chapter swerves into a description of her being physically assaulted, only for the scene to revert back to the non-violent preceding context, and her uncertainty of whether it was an hallucination, premonition, or glimpse of an alt-timeline.
The town itself can’t remain unaffected by the recent events. Marissa goes out one night to see masses of trucks gathering and “cruising” with the same rhythmic music pounding from speakers on-board.
Marissa understood they must have all tuned to the same death metal station, something like that. Many of the people standing up screaming in truck beds or convertibles seemed to be mostly naked and had painted themselves in streaks of red and blue. One was crowned with a bison’s head, brown wooly head and black horns circling by, a bloody discharge from the eyeholes as they swept past.
Ultimo rules in this world, with his ex-military Humvee and various interests in the dope and porn industries.
”…You don’t want to hear the bear tape. I only listened to it once myself. I give people what they think they want. But it corrupts you, to look at things like that. Or listen to them. It poisons your mind.”
Some people come to him as a “spirit guide” and he has some shamanic capacities, but he acknowledges that he doesn’t know what lies in the rocks, and Julie has travelled closer to it than he has.
”There’s something out there,” Ultimo said. “In there, I mean. It’s old, and it doesn’t belong to anybody in these little towns around here, or out on the reservation either, and it didn’t belong to Sichang u. it’s older than any of those people are. But somehow – “
”It belongs to everybody.”
”So you do know what I mean,” Ultimo said. “And the ways to get there, they’re the same, for anybody. I mean the differences don’t count. And I – well, you were there. You saw it. But I want to know what I saw was real.”
Nothing is what it seems, Ultimo isn’t who you would assume him to be. In the end Julie can come back out of the cave world she had blended in to, having joined to the Storytelling Stone.