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Madison Smartt Bell Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Williamson County, Tennessee, 1957. Education: Princeton University, New Jersey, A.B. (summa cum laude) in English 1979; Hollins College, Virginia, M.A. 1981. Career: Writer-in-residence, Goucher College, Towson, Maryland, 1984-86, 1988-89; lecturer, YMHA Poetry Center, New York, 1984-86; visiting lecturer, University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Iowa City, 1987-88; lecturer, Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, Baltimore, Maryland, 1989-91. Awards: Lillian Smith award, 1989; Guggenheim fellowship, 1991; Maryland State Arts Council award, 1991; Howard Foundation fellowship, 1991; Robert Penn Warren award for the Fellowship of Southern Writers, 1995. Agent: Vivienne Schuster, John Farquharson Ltd., 162-168 Regent Street, London W1R 5TB, England; or, Jane Gelfman, John Farquharson Ltd., 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Washington Square Ensemble. New York, Viking Press, andLondon, Deutsch, 1983.

Waiting for the End of the World. New York, Ticknor and Fields, andLondon, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

Straight Cut. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1986; London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

The Year of Silence. New York, Ticknor and Fields, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

Soldier's Joy. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1989.

Doctor Sleep. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1991.

Save Me, Joe Louis. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1993.

All Souls' Rising. New York, Pantheon, and London, Granta, 1995.

Ten Indians. New York, Pantheon Books, 1996.

Master of the Crossroads. New York, Pantheon Books, 2000.

Short Stories

Zero db and Other Stories. New York, Ticknor and Fields, andLondon, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

Barking Man and Other Stories. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1990.

Other

The History of the Owen Graduate School of Management. Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, 1988.

Narrative Design, a Writer's Guide to Structure. New York, W.W. Norton, 1997.

* * *

Madison Smartt Bell's special province is the sensuousness of desperation, the aesthetic hideaways in which the disenchanted, disenfranchised, and dysfunctional seek refuge from storms raging in their own minds. That has been clear from his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, whose tangle of first-person narratives follows a gang of urban heroin dealers through a jungle of violence and sin.

The violence and frantic edge-running of Bell's novels invite comparison with the early novels of Robert Stone. Both writers probe the grimy underbelly of life and characters balanced precariously between suicide and murder. But as dark as Bell's tales may be, rays of affirmation seep in, unlike Stone's. For Stone's characters, the darkening world offers little chance to wrench from it a life. But for Bell's, the moral condition of the world is either static or cyclic rather than entropic. There are dusks, but there are also dawns. In that way, Bell's world may be truer than Stone's, and less soul-deadening.

Bell's characters are in quest of redemption and rebirth. They'll blow bullet holes in traditional moral tablets, as do Stone's, but they seem more eager to pick up a pen and write new ones than to cling to the pistol.

This quest appears in Bell's 1985 novel, Waiting for the End of the World, the story of a plot to detonate a nuclear device under New York. Larkin, an associate member of a cell led by the profoundly maladjusted psychiatrist Simon Rohnstock, has the unenviable position of human trigger for the weapon—a kind of guerrilla Valhalla entirely appropriate to Bell's message, for the author seems to suggest that only gestures of immense proportion can have any lasting impact in an age of mass lassitude.

Ultimately, collective will disintegrates as Rohnstock decides that this venture might be just the vehicle to propel him to para-political supremacy, and Larkin begins to doubt his own purpose. By this stage however, the focus has shifted towards the novel's other themes: Larkin has "adopted" Tommy, the child victim of vicious ritualistic abuse, and is being pursued by the boy's demented father—a dark avenging angel. Descending into the detritus of New York society, Bell unifies several quasi-religious sub-texts, blending a spate of spontaneous combustions, elements of Russian Orthodoxy, and a liberal dose of Satanism. The subsequent action takes on mystic overtones—Tommy's real name is revealed to be Gabriel, and he, previously mute, manifests visionary powers and a voice suitable to their expression. Larkin's own spectacular fate is just one of many impressive flashes of invention that litter a script which is both a convincing study of personal motivation and an accomplished semi-allegorical interpretation of late twentieth-century malaise.

Straight Cut reveals a clear movement towards order. Bell follows the rivalry between Tracy Bateman and Kevin Carter, former friends and colleagues in an independent film-making company that has been their cover for drug smuggling. Kevin and Tracy represent two sides of the same nature, one scheming and manipulative, the other intuitive and unambiguous; platonically in love with each other and both in love with Tracy's estranged wife Lauren. The real interest of the book lies not in the high-tension plot twists, but in the duel between intellect and instinct, a tussle kept alive brilliantly by Bell's rapid scene shifting and neat line in tough-guy backchat.

The Year of Silence fuses multiple narrative perspectives, offering a series of individual reactions to Marian's death from an overdose. Friends, lovers, and nodding acquaintances are all struggling desperately to come to terms with a world bereft of her presence. In truth, only Gwen, Marian's cousin, has by the end of the book reached a compromise, and we leave her in the sanctuary of a white clapboard holiday home, preparing to restart her life. The loss of a "flair for transforming the tacky into something transcendent" is to be mourned, but whether it quite merits the indulgence of a whole book is questionable. Depending on your preference, Bell either offers a stunning essay on the idolization of vacuousness or fails to evoke sufficient sympathy for Marian for us to feel much moved by the bleatings of the bereaved.

If The Year of Silence lacks completeness, almost all of the pieces in Zero db are the finished article: polished, absorbing, and of a consistently high standard. This is Bell in virtuoso form, producing an utterly compelling range of voice and concern, and throwing off the shades of Faulkner and Poe which have coloured his previous technical and imaginative achievements. "Today Is a Good Day to Die" is a memorable highlight, and, happily, in "Triptych I" and "Triptych II" we are at last afforded a real insight, from an insider, into life on a Tennessee hog farm.

In Soldier's Joy, Thomas Laidlaw returns from Vietnam to his family's now-deserted farm outside Nashville. A loner, Laidlaw wants little more than peace, freedom to roam the landscape, and time to hone his considerable talents as a bluegrass banjo player. He's been half a world away dispensing and avoiding death.

Tennessee seems the ideal place to heal from a disorienting war. Bell's minutely observed description make Laidlaw's deliberate actions feel like Nick Adams returning to the Big Two-Hearted River, his farm an arcadian balm to his senses. Then comes Laidlaw's reunion with his black childhood friend and Vietnam comrade Rodney Redmon, and Laidlaw learns he has simply left one war zone for another. Soldier's Joy is a tale of life lived close to the bone. Once again Bell tenses his muscular grip on the feel and meaning of violence, wrenching a piece of literary art from a plot whose outline could sound like that of a television movie.

In Doctor Sleep, Bell weaves an arresting if uneven tapestry. Its several threads unfurl from three closely observed days and nights in the life of Adrian Strother. Four years earlier, Adrian had sworn off both heroin and New York City and moved to London. Now he works as a hypnotist, "a sort of psychological repairman," whose most interesting client, Eleanor Peavy, suffers multiple personalities: prim Miss Peavey by day, prostitute Nell by night.

She is the least of Adrian's problems. Wracked by insomnia, he walks London's streets where a serial killer brutally murders little girls. Mistaken for his friend Stuart (a born-again former addict now forming a heroin self-help center), Adrian is stalked by thugs and abducted by London's chief heroin distributor. When drug traffickers are not hunting him, he's hunting them under pressure from Scotland Yard. On free nights, he moonlights as a stage hypnotist at a burlesque club or works out at a tae kwon do studio and spars with his West Indian friend Terence after class in the dark.

Back in Adrian's flat, his pet boa constrictor is losing color and won't eat, and Adrian's neglected girlfriend Clara has left him for the fourth time. Nicole—the dazzling former call-girl Stuart battered and Adrian secretly married—is in London, maybe to pick up with Adrian again or maybe to ask him for a divorce. All the while, Adrian reflects obsessively on the Hermetic mysticism of Renaissance philosopher Giorano Bruno. Little wonder Adrian cannot sleep.

As far removed from the Tennessee hills, glacial pacing, and third-person restraint of Soldier's Joy as Doctor Sleep is, the two books feel strongly linked. Like returning soldier Thomas Laidlaw, Adrian seldom eats and never sleeps, has thematically important attachments to both his male friends and his animals, and is painfully reticent about his feelings. Most importantly, like Laidlaw just back from Vietnam, Adrian is a solitary figure in need of healing.

There is nothing new about that. Since his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, with its cluster of heroin dealers, Bell has always written with conspicuous sympathy for the alienated and the bruised. He searches for characters beaten down by a combination of life and poor choices, whose hearts (to paraphrase a line of Spires's) are a bit off-center, yet who desire affirmation. At some point, a moment flickers where new choice is possible, and they choose to move toward grace, often amid religious symbolism.

As the elements of Doctor Sleep bond artfully together—as Eleanor Peavey's pathology links to the vicious child murders which tie to the London drug lord who bears on Adrian's work with Scotland Yard and Adrian's need to face the truth which joins him in spirit to Eleanor Peavey—perhaps the most important element turns out to be Adrian's fasting snake. Adrian feels a Jungian connection to it and keeps it "in honor and acknowledgment of the snake in" himself. The boa constrictor will not eat for the same reason Adrian cannot sleep: he is undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis.

Bell may not always hide the symbolic seams where plot and philosophy join, he can oversensationalize an ending, and his fascination for characters from society's dingiest creases does put off some readers. But in Doctor Sleep he once again artfully blends perceptiveness, a deadpan mastery of the grotesque, and a startling profundity of mind.

Though Bell meanders between the beatific Appalachian rurality of his childhood, the decaying gothic grandeur of the New York that nursed from him his first novel, and foggy London, he is, in fact, a regional writer. His region is the misty border buffering purgatory from hell in the sootiest creases of contemporary society. In Save Me, Joe Louis, 23-year-old Macrae walks that border. He is AWOL from the army and living in New York's Hell's Kitchen. He hasn't enjoyed much of anything since his teen years in Tennessee when he was in love, without knowing it, with a spirited photographer named Lacy.

Petulant and lost, Macrae often takes "a wring fork in the crisscross trails of conversation" and blindly strews mines along his own path. He forms unfortunate attachments, one to a prostitute whose pimp decides to blow half her head off. Macrae's most dangerous alliance is with his increasingly unstable partner-in-crime Charlie, whose rationale—"Ain't nobody cares that much what you do"—faintly recalls Flannery O'Connor's Misfit. After they've made New York too hot for their comfort by forcing people to withdraw and turn over money from their ATMs, they head south to Baltimore where they add a third partner, a benign young black man named Porter, fresh off a jail term for a bar fight that turned inadvertently gory. The three hold up an armored bank truck, but police arrive, bullets fly, and the trio heads full speed for Macrae's father's farm outside of Nashville.

Were trigger-happy Charlie not with him, Macrae might at last feel he's returned from far east of Eden. There's the potential for a wholesome life in Tennessee. Adjacent to Macrae's land is the farm of Thomas Laidlaw, the hero of Soldier's Joy. Not only is Laidlaw there, still playing banjo with his bluegrass band and still with Adrienne Wells, but the beautiful Lacy has returned home from art school in Philadelphia. That she still loves Macrae is clear to everyone but him, who keeps stumbling aimlessly in restless confusion. After a robbery attempt which they botch even worse than the Baltimore fiasco, Macrae, Charlie, and Porter flee to the South Carolina coast. There it grows obvious that Macrae may have outlived his usefulness to Charlie, and that the book's final page won't be big enough to hold both of them.

In Save Me, Joe Louis, Bell once again invites us to care about characters who offer scarcely an inch of ground to build affection on. Yet once again, by combining subtle technique and native compassion, he succeeds, walking sympathetically among contemporary thieves and moral lepers with a charity that either converts or shames his readers. All Souls' Rising is the most intensely historical of Bell's works, drawing on a time and place unfamiliar to many American readers—Haiti during its struggle for independence in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award, but Ten Indians was less well-received. With its diffuse plot surrounding Mike Derlin, a white professional who inexplicably opens a martial arts school in the black projects of Baltimore, it ran the risk of losing focus. Yet All Souls' Rising has proven that Bell can paint beautifully on a large canvas, without losing a sense of the entire picture.

—Ian McMechan

, updated by

Andy Solomon

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