Madison Smartt Bell ’79 (Jerome De Perlinghi)

New book: The Color of Night, by Madison Smartt Bell ’79 (Vintage Books)

The author: Madison Smartt Bell is the author of 15 previous works of fiction, including the trilogy of novels about Haiti’s long, bloody struggle for independence led by Toussaint Louverture, among them All Souls’ Rising, which was a National Book Award finalist. A creative writing professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Bell also is a musician, part of the recording duo Bell & Cooper. “I have always said that my work is dictated to me by daemons,” writes Bell in the acknowledgments for The Color of Night. “Surely [this novel] is the most vicious and appalling story ever to pass through my hand to the page.”
The plot: The narrator of this novel about the persistence of violence in America is Mae, a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino, who was the victim of horrendous child abuse and later had joined a violent cult. When she isn’t working at the casino, she spends her free time roaming the desert with her rifle or sitting in her trailer obsessively watching clips of Sept. 11, where she spots her old cult lover, Laurel, escaping the wreckage. Those images recall memories of her violent past.
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Opening lines:
“Until the day the towers fell, I’d long believed that all the gods were dead. For years, for decades, my head was still. Only sometimes, deep in the desert, the soughing ghost voice of O____. But still, the bell of my head was silent, swinging aimlessly over the void.”
Reviews: Bell’s novels, writes Booklist, “all have roots that reach to the underworld. He has always opened himself to the monstrous, the nihilistic, the darkly erotic. And now, in this poisonous snake of a tale, he rides a river of terror as it flows through one deeply damaged woman and yokes together acts of incomprehensible violence.” The Color of Night, wrote a Los Angeles Times critic, “challenges the very anatomy of evil … [and] breaks down a deeply flawed character until all that’s left is a vast and terribly familiar darkness.”