Large Canvas, Long Reach

Madison Smartt Bell has a penchant for keeping his fiction mysterious at its deepest core. The protagonist of his 1985 novel, Waiting for the End of the World, is a fellow called Larkin who is out to destroy New York City for no reason a reader can ever discern. The willful wackos who give The Washington Square Ensemble (1983) its title have individual designs and schedules which are brought to light only fitfully. Bell's finest work so far is a collection, Zero db and Other Stories (1987), in which two of the best stories, "The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services" and "I Love NY," are concerned with distance and powerlessness, the difficulties that people encounter in trying to act charitably. Straight Cut (1986) is a fairly straightforward suspense novel; the motivation for the drug smuggling it treats is greed complicated by some perfunctory existentialist posturing. In 1987 Bell published The Year of Silence, a novel that takes his reliance upon mystery to what may be an ultimate limit. In this book the protagonist, a suicide named Marian, is already dead; the story is about her absence from the world, the hole she leaves in the scheme of things.

In his newest novel, Soldier's Joy, Bell once more hides the heart of his narrative, the motives of his characters, in purblind mystery. But this time the strategy is unsuccessful. A darkened and...

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