THE COLOR OF NIGHT by Madison Smartt Bell

Book Quote:

“Above the dry hills the air turned white — that shimmering electric pallor that pretended to promise rain in the desert, and the hard wind swirling up grit from the ground, while Ned climbed trees to nail up speakers behind D—‘s speaking stone, and Crunchy and Creamy stirred up batches of gangster acid, cut with speed, with Tab or Mountain Dew in plastic garbage cans, so that it rained snakes instead of water, and I — I tore my robe to bare one breast and caught such a snake, its diamond back writhing over my hand, meaning to bind it around my brow as a living coronet, wedge head erect and spitting venom while I danced outside the borders of any mortal consciousness, whirling my thyrsus in one hand and a wildcat’s spotted cub in another.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (APR 06, 2011)

I have chosen this rather longer quotation to show how Madison Smartt Bell can turn on a dime between a realistic description of a California druggie cult in the late sixties to an evocation of the revels of Dionysian maenads from the earliest age of Greek mythology. The link here is an acid trip, but Bell does not need chemicals to effect his alchemy. In 2001, when the book opens, the narrator Mae is a middle-aged croupier in a Las Vegas area casino. Bell’s description is realistic and immediate: “Only the whirl of lights and the electronic burbling of machines, rattle of dice in the craps table cups, and almost inaudible whisper of cards, the friction-free hum of roulette wheels turning.” But two sentences later, he has already made the shift: “It was a sort of fifth-rate hell, and I a minor demon posted to it. A succubus too indifferent to suck.” Writing of the harsh life of the trailer park behind a chain-link fence in the desert, with the tracks of ATVs crossing the serpentine marks of sidewinders in the sand — Cormac McCarthy country — Bell can match the master, image for image. But he is also liable to launch into a passage of Classical Greek (and, what’s more, leave it untranslated)! There are scenes of drugs, sex, mutilation, and murder in this book that would normally turn my stomach, but Bell’s ability to juggle the violence of the American underbelly with the Bacchic celebration of unbridled passion, and to keep both balls scintillating in the air at the same time, made for such an exhilarating experience that I was fascinated throughout. It was even worth the nightmares when I went to bed.

Perhaps it worked for me because I have had a classical education, and have worked with myth all my professional life. I think the intensity of the writing will still come through to those who do not catch the references, but it might still be worth checking the Wikipedia article on Orpheus before starting. Not just his trip to the underworld to reclaim Eurydice, but also the less familiar legends about his death, torn apart by maenads in the throes of a Dionysian orgy. Two important figures in the novel are referred to by their initials only — rather coyly, since the allusion is pretty obvious: O— (Orpheus) is a rock star, living in a beach house in Malibu; D— (Dionysus) is the charismatic leader of a drug cult known as The People. Although this may sound impossibly fantastic, so was a lot else that was going on in the late sixties, not least the murderous Manson Family. Madison Smartt Bell’s miracle is his ability to be simultaneously mythic and utterly realistic.

The novel, broken into 74 very short chapters, begins in 2001. Mae’s reaction to the World Trade Center attack is different from that of most Americans. She compiles the news footage into a two-hour tape that she watches again and again, reveling in it: “The planes bit chunks from the sides of the towers and the gorgeous sheets of orange flame roared up and the mortals flung away from the glittering windows like soap flakes swirling in a snow globe and the tower shuddered, buckled, blossomed and came showering down.” It is clear she has a fascination with violence, and in alternating chapters we discover why. Traumatized by incestuous abuse (worse in that she seems to have embraced rather than resisted it), she leaves home as a teenager and travels to California, “balling for bread” as she puts it. There, she is picked up by D— and recruited into The People, living in their commune outside San Francisco, taking part in activities which become more and more anarchic. When the police raid the compound, Mae manages to escape with her lover Laurel, but the two later separate to go into hiding under false identities. Now, over 30 years later, the memories come flooding back, triggered by a news shot of Laurel fleeing from Ground Zero: “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. Blood was running from the corners of her mouth, like in the old days, though not for the same reason.”

These closing words of the opening chapter, which itself is only a page and a half long, deliver a mule kick into a roller-coaster of a ride. It is horrible yet thrilling, sickening yet exhilarating, with a tense pace that never lets up. Other than McCarthy, it makes me think of Robert Stone, who writes an appreciation on the cover, of the violence of Roberto Bolaño, and most recently of Carlos Fuentes, whose Destiny and Desire makes a similar play between myth and reality. But The Color of Night is leaner and meaner than any of these, and more brilliant in its darkness. Undoubtedly one of my best books of the year.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 8 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (April 5, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Madison Smartt Bell
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:Devil’s Dream


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April 6, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, California, Contemporary, New York City, US Southwest, y Award Winning Author

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