There’s no question in my mind that Madison Smartt Bell is a gifted writer. I’ve enjoyed much of the work he’s produced in his long and distinguished literary career, which makes it all the more confounding that I had such a miserable time reading his new book, The Color of Night (Vintage Books, $15). It’s a novel of undeniable craft, but questionable appeal. Intellectually, I know I was supposed to find The Color of Night exhilarating. Instead, I found it tedious. But if you slow down to gawk at traffic accidents, I expect you’ll get a real kick out of this novel.
Poor Mae is damaged goods from a dysfunctional family. She deals blackjack in a Las Vegas casino, but this isn’t a novel about gambling–it’s a novel about violence, pure and simple, from cradle to premature grave. Mae spends her evenings roaming the open desert behind her trailer park home, rifle in hand, aiming at coyotes and occasionally pulling the trigger. After seeing video footage of Laurel, an ex-lover, surviving the horrors of 9/11, a host of old wounds are reopened. Not just between Mae and her abusive family members, but between Mae and Laurel, who became romantically linked when they were both members of a Charles Manson-like cult in the late ’60s.
Bell reveals Mae’s violent past in a series of flashbacks, beginning with Mae and her brother. In an effort to escape her abusive home life, Mae eventually drifts to San Francisco and falls in with clan of violent, drugged-altered hippies. Manson isn’t mentioned by name—the leader here is simply called “D,” but the parallels are undeniable and Mae’s group (referred to as “the People”) is responsible for the same kind of mayhem.
Mae hires an acquaintance named Pauley to locate Laurel, who is now a prep school administrator in Greenwich Village. She’s dying of cancer, and not exactly anxious to revisit her past. For characters like Mae, the past is all they have.
Initially, Mae isn’t emotionally prepared to speak with Laurel, but it’s no surprise when she decides to see Laurel again after 30 years, and no surprise when she brings her rifle. Bell goes so far as to suggest that people like Mae are simply destined for evil, and your enjoyment of The Color of Night may hinge on how much you agree with him.
There’s not much to like in The Color of Night—Bell has written a lyrical novel of violence, but neglected to give us anybody to grieve for. It’s a tragic story, but not particularly moving.