Madison Smartt Bell is a critically acclaimed writer of more than a dozen novels and story collections, as well as numerous essays and reviews for publications such as Harper’s and the New York Times Book Review. His books have been finalists for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, among other honors. Bell has also taught at distinguished creative writing programs including the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Johns Hopkins, and Goucher College. His work is notable for its sweeping historical and philosophical scope matched with a remarkable sensitivity to the individual voices of characters on the margins of society.
There is nothing outstanding higher because the fiction was for no better word, enjoyable, would rate it even higher because few ever come up with the plots, and the rare insight into strange minds. Some of the stories were better for no better reason than I'd become temporarily dislodged from normalcy. Now to return to...
Collection of stories that feels very much of it's time in the 80s and somehow isn't quite sure what it is, maybe. Or began as one thing and ended as another. A pair of tightly written triptychs focused on a rural black family and the daughter or the white woman for whom they work early in the book, along with the wild young artist of "The Naked Lady" and the wistful shrimping and drinking lovers of "The Monkey Park," evoke past Southern days quite clearly only to give way somewhat rambling stories of apartment hopping and job hunting in New York City and nearby New Jersey in stories such as "Irene," "The Lie Detector," and "The Forgotten Bridge." Bell closes with a piece equally again out of place with the rest in "Today Is a Good Day to Die," a stellar portrait of an unnamed lieutenant under Custer's command heading into the general's final campaign.
I must be in a critical contrarian mood, because for the most part I was rather unimpressed by this collection of stories. Some were ok but the vast majority I started only to give up on them rather quickly. I had heard of him, but now I am reluctant to try anything else. Harsh, I know, but something must have rubbed me the wrong way. Perhap I was expecting more and I didn't feel like the hype was lived up to.
I read this book nearly twenty-five years ago, back when I was in grad school. I went on to read another book of Bell's stories, which was about as good as this one. At the time, however, I don't know that I was necessarily that impressed. Rather, this was a book that stayed with me, the way a movie called The Conversation stayed with me, kept me thinking about it for weeks afterward.
The two stories that are my favorite in this collection fall at the start of the second section, which is my favorite section of the book. The book as a whole is set into three sections, with "three" being something of a motif in this work, as designated by the first and last stories of the first section. Those stories are called Tryptichs--they are stories in three parts.
Triptych I is about a little girl at a hog killing. Where Bell excels throughout the collection is in his somber attention to detail, and that's what makes this otherwise less interesting story impressive. It's set in the South, among black folk and white, and burning and accidents are something of a theme throughout the three disparate parts.
"The Naked Lady" is a powerful piece of wit and writing skill and was the one that most impressed me when I first read the collection. It's about the friend of an artist, their horrific home, the sculptures the artist creates, and the rats they kill.
"Monkey Park" is another sort of hopelessness--this one involving a couple that isn't.
"Triptych II" focuses on different ways of dying, one among peacocks, one an old man, and one a bull. The idea here seems to be that people are little more than animals in the end, facing their final hours. And it mirrors the final story in the collection.
The middle section includes six stories about young men (or a young man, as many of the stories seem to be about the same person and arguably all of them could be) fighting--or perhaps, more so, giving into--depression. "The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services" involves a young man who goes off to college, does well for a few months, and then sinks into a morass wherein he stops bothering to attend classes and spends most of his days on the "sad" side of the university cafeteria. Here, a blind man is sat down by him each day, but the blindness is really the narrator's own, as he is lost without knowing how to escape his own lethargy.
"Irene" finds a young man living in a Hispanic neighborhood with cheap rent. The man knows little of his neighbors and few of them, but he forges a kind of fascination with a twelve-year-old girl that is at some level a bit creepy but at the same time a kind of cry for connection--with someone, anyone.
"The Lie Detector" involves a young man who loses his apartment and has to go find a new one. Thing is, his old landlord seems to be trying to stiff him on the deposit; his new landlord seems to be trying to ask for extra kickbacks in order for him to move in; and true to form, the narrator himself begins to apply similar sorts of dishonesty to grift a bit more cash for his needs.
"I Heart NY" involves a young man trying to do just the opposite--that is, to be a responsible and good citizen. He takes real interest in those around, but the city doesn't seem to care much for or about him, and when he tries to help others, it rarely works out. Police don't come to assist. Muggers he catches turn out to be the wrong person, and so on.
"The Forgotten Bridge" focuses on the same young man as in "Lie Detector" after he is in the new apartment--and on the relationships he forges with his Hispanic neighbors. There's a kind of sadness to the tale insofar as it's told from a distant time with a certain amount of nostalgia, though it's nostalgia for a time that was rough on all of the people involved.
"Zero db" is about a man who works on sound for motion pictures and other productions. Here, he's recording people in a bar after a particularly bad day at work.
The final section/story is "Today Is a Good Day to Die" and focuses on an officer in Custer's army out west who is rescued from a snow storm by the Indians Custer has tried to and will try again to kill. This leads to some uncertainty in the officer regarding his role and purpose in life.
A lot happens in both of these stories are among my favorites, including the title story and 'The Naked Lady.' A lot happens in both these stories, and some of the others in the collection, and it's all interesting and profound. A great writer. There is an annoying pop up that I can't get rid of that is preventing me from completing this note. It's an ad for Vitamin Water.