Bell, Madison Smartt 1957–
Bell, Madison Smartt 1957–
PERSONAL: Born August 1, 1957, in Nashville, TN; son of Henry Denmark (an attorney) and Allen (a farmer; maiden name, Wigginton) Bell; married Elizabeth Spires (a poet), June 15, 1985; children: Celia. Education: Princeton University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1979; Hollins College, M.A., 1981.
ADDRESSES: Home—Baltimore, MD. Office—Department of English, Goucher College, Towson, MD 21204. Agent—Jane Gellman, 250 West 57th St., New York, NY 10107. E-mail—mbell\@goucher.edu.
CAREER: Security guard at Unique Clothing Warehouse (boutique), 1979; production assistant for Gomes-Lowe Associates (commercial production house), 1979; sound man for Radiotelevisione Italiana (Italian national network), 1979; Franklin Library (publishing firm), New York, NY, picture research assistant, 1980, writer of reader's guides, 1980–83; Berkley Publishing Corp., New York, NY, manuscript reader and copy writer, 1981–83; Goucher College, Towson, MD, assistant professor of English, 1984–86, writer-in-residence, 1988–. Visiting writer, Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, New York, NY, 1984–86, Iowa Writers Workshop, 1987–88, and Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, 1989–93. Director of 185 Corporation (media arts organization), 1979–84.
MEMBER: PEN American Center, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Poets and Writers, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Ward Mathis Prize, 1977, for short story "Triptych," Class of 1870 Junior Prize, 1978, Francis LeMoyne Page Award, 1978, for fiction writing, and Class of 1859 Prize, 1979, all from Princeton University; Lillian Smith Award, 1989; Guggenheim fellowship, 1991; Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award, 1991–92; George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation Award, 1991–92; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1992; National Book Award finalist, 1995, PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, Maryland Library Association Award, and Anisfield-Wolf Award, all 1996, all for All Souls' Rising; selected as one of the "Best American Novelists under Forty," Granta, 1996; Andrew James Purdy Fiction Award, Hollins College.
The Washington Square Ensemble, Viking (New York, NY), 1983.
Waiting for the End of the World, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1985.
Straight Cut, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1986.
The Year of Silence, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
Soldier's Joy, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1989.
Doctor Sleep, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.
Save Me, Joe Louis, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1993.
All Souls' Rising, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.
Ten Indians, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1996.
Master of the Crossroads, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
Anything Goes, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2002.
History of the Owen Graduate School of Management (nonfiction), Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN), 1985.
Zero db (short fiction), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1987.
(With others) George Garrett: An Interview, Northouse & Northouse (Dallas, TX), 1988.
Waiting for the End of the World (screenplay), Cine Paris, 1988.
The Safety Net (screenplay), New Horizons, 1990.
Barking Man and Other Stories (contains "Holding Together," "Black and Tan," "Customs of the Country," "Finding Natasha," "Dragon's Seed," "Barking Man," "Petit Cachou," "Witness," "Move on Up," and "Mr. Potatohead in Love,") Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1990.
Choc en Retour (screen adaptation of Straight Cut), Thomas Kuchenreuther (Munich, Germany), 1993.
New Millennium Writings, Spring & Summer 1996, New Messenger Books (Nashville, TN), 1996.
Narrative Design: A Writer's Guide to Structure, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
(Author of introduction) George Garrett, The King of Babylon Shall Not Come against You (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor of short fiction to periodicals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, New Writers of the South, New Stories from the South, Atlantic, Harper's, Best of Intro, Editors' Choice, Louder Than Words, A Pocketful of Prose, Sound of Writing, Elvis in Oz, That's What I Like about the South, Antaeus, Boulevard, Cosmopolitan, Literary Review (London, England), Ploughshares, Columbia, Crescent Review, Northwest Review, Lowlands Review, Poughkeepsie Review, Stories, Tennessee Illustrated, Switch, Southern Review, Witness, Hudson Review, and North American Review. Contributor of reviews and essays to Harper's, Antaeus, Chronicles, Switch, World and I, A Wake for the Living, Critical Essays on Peter Taylor, New York Times Magazine, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, London Standard, North American Review, Boston Globe, Southern Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Village Voice, and Los Angeles Times Book Review. Work included in anthologies, including It's Only Rock and Roll, edited by Janice Eidus and John Kastan, D. Godine; and Sudden Fiction (Continued), edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Contributor of essay to Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke, Little, Brown, and to Outside the Law: Narratives on Justice in America, edited by Susan Richards Shreve and Porter Shreve, Beacon Press. Author of readers' guides, Franklin Library, 1979–83.
Several of Bell's works have been translated into other languages, including German, Danish, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, French, and Dutch.
SIDELIGHTS: "Madison Smartt Bell has been called a postmodernist, a minimalist, a prose poet of aloneness, and the best writer of his generation," stated Donna Seaman in Booklist. "His distinctively riling fiction sizzles with tension and menace." Bell, who had published six novels and two short-story collections by the time he was thirty-five years old, usually writes about society's misfits. Most of his main characters are petty criminals, drifters, and lost souls whose lives Seaman describes as "fateful and apocalyptic."
Save Me, Joe Louis exemplifies the themes and situations found in much of Bell's fiction. In this novel, Macrae, an AWOL Southerner, and Charlie, an unstable ex-con, forge a dangerous partnership soon after meeting in New York City. Together they embark on a smalltime crime spree that eventually leads them to flee for Macrae's backcountry homeland. There, the relationship sours and violence erupts. Macrae and Charlie are typical of Bell's protagonists in that there is little to like about them; many commentators find that one of the great strengths of Bell's writing is his ability to generate characters for such people. Andy Solomon wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Bell "moves among modern thieves and lepers with charity. His is a Robert Browning empathy that creates no character so defiled that Bell cannot ask, 'What is at the heart of this man that is in me as well?' In Macrae, Bell once again takes a character you'd be disturbed to find living anywhere near your neighborhood, then moves relentlessly against the grain of popular thought to find the embers of Macrae's humanity beneath the ashes of his pain." Reviewing the novel for Booklist, Seaman called Save Me, Joe Louis "a work of ferocious intensity and poetic nihilism" in which Bell examines the "soul's disturbing capacity for both good and evil and the pointlessness of unexamined lives lived wholly by instinct and rage."
Rage is at the center of All Souls' Rising, an epic history of Haiti's war for independence, which broke out shortly after the French revolution in the late 1700s. The strange alliances, hatred, and tensions among Haiti's rich white ruling class, the poor whites, the free mulattoes, and the island's mistreated slave population culminated in a fifteen-year bloodbath. In just the first few months of the revolution, 12,000 people perished and nearly 200 plantations were burned. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, John Vernon described Bell's historical novel as a "carefully drawn roadmap through hell." "All Souls' Rising," he continued, "is historical fiction in the monumental manner, heavily prefaced, prologued, glossaried and chronologized. It admirably diagrams the complex muddle of eighteenth-century Haiti, a slave society constructed along clearly racist lines but with surprising alliances. Haitian whites, split into royalists and revolutionaries, alternately compete for and spurn the loyalties of free mulattoes, for whom gradations of color are of central importance…. This bizarre and rich stew is the perfect stuff of fiction, whose subject is never reality but competing realities."
Countless atrocities were committed on all sides in the Haitian revolution, and Bell's book details many examples. For some reviewers, the gore was too much. Brian Morton expressed little enthusiasm for the novel, stating in the New Statesman that All Souls' Rising "is an ugly book about ugly times. The author can claim historical veracity…. But there are undercurrents that recall the violent pornography of another triple-barrelled American novelist, Bret Easton Ellis." Vernon also found the scenes of mutilation, rape, and violence relentless and warned that such repeated gore may numb the novel "into a handbook of splatter-punk. To his credit," Vernon continued, "Bell knows that violence may be the writer's hedge against mawkishness, but it also threatens to become mere slush, the sentimentality of gore." Still, Vernon found much to praise, especially Bell's ability to humanize all types of characters and concluded that while there are flaws in the novel, they are overshadowed by its power and intelligence: "All Souls' Rising, refreshingly ambitious and maximalist in its approach, takes enormous chances, and consequently will haunt readers long after plenty of flawless books have found their little slots on their narrow shelves."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer expressed unreserved enthusiasm for All Souls' Rising, deeming it an "astonishing novel of epic scope." The reviewer argued that "Bell avoids the sense of victory that mars so many novels about revolution." After the many scenes of massacre, rape, and violence, the critic continued, "there can be no question of a winner of the battle for Haitian liberation. Surviving it was feat enough. In Bell's hands, the chaos … that surrounds these characters somehow elucidates the nobility of even the most craven among them."
Discussing All Souls' Rising, with Ken Ringle of the Washington Post, Bell compared Haiti's race conflict with conditions in the contemporary United States. "Haiti's was a full-blown race war," he explained, "over issues we've never really come to terms with in this country. Now we're having our own race war. But it's a slow-motion race war, disguised as crime in the streets. And nobody, black or white, wants to admit what's happening."
Bell's next novel, Ten Indians, centers on a white, middle-aged therapist for children named Mike Devlin who creates in the black ghetto of Baltimore a school for Tae Kwon Do, which ends up drawing people from two rivaling drug gangs—one member becomes involved with Devlin's seventeen-year-old daughter, Michelle. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly said that in the novel, which switches between first-and third-person narratives, "Devlin's motivations … remain personally unclear, if admirable in the abstract," but the reviewer called Bell "a natural storyteller." John Skow, in a review for Time, noted that "the working out, told partly from Devlin's viewpoint and partly, in convincing street language, from that of the drug dealers and their women, is spare and cinematic," and concluded, "Good ending, good novel." In a review of Ten Indians, Booklist's Michael Cart mentioned that the novel "would be a wonderful book for mature young adult readers" because it "captures the mix of literary quality and right-on relevance that, if put into the right readers' hands, can change lives—one individual at a time. It can, in fact, translate good intentions into redeeming reality."
Anything Goes, which centers on a bass player in a bar band, reflects a world Bell has some personal experience with. He has collaborated with poet Wyn Cooper, who came to fame as the author of the lyrics of the Sheryl Crow song All I Wanna Do. The two have collaborated on a CD, Anything Goes, which contains the songs mentioned in Bell's book. The CD garnered the duo a recording contract and a second album, titled Forty Words for Fear.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 22, 1990, p. N8; January 13, 1991, p. N10; June 13, 1993, p. N8; November 26, 1995, p. C1.
Booklist, April 15, 1993, pp. 1468-1469; September 1, 1995, p. 4; January 1, 1997, p. 834.
Boston Globe, May 23, 1993, p. B40; October 22, 1995, p. B38.
Chicago Tribune, January 13, 1991, section 14, p. 1; May 30, 1993, section 14, p. 6; October 22, 1995, section 14, p. 1.
Entertainment Weekly, November 10, 1995, p. 55.
Harper's, August, 1986.
Library Journal, October 1, 1995, p. 118.
Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1985; September 15, 1986; February 20, 1987; November 3, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 27, 1983; September 30, 1990, p. 12; January 20, 1991, p. 8; July 11, 1993, p. 7.
New Statesman, February 9, 1996, pp. 37-38.
New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1983; August 18, 1985; October 12, 1986; February 15, 1987; November 15, 1987; December 27, 1987; April 8, 1990, p. 11; January 6, 1991, p. 11; June 20, 1993, p. 9; November 24, 1994; October 29, 1995, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1995, p. 102; November 6, 1995, p. 58; August 26, 1996, p. 75.
Time, October 28, 1996, p. 110.
Times (London, England), November 14, 1985; November 19, 1987.
Times Literary Supplement, August 26, 1983; November 22, 1985; November 6, 1987.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 22, 1987.
Washington Post, October 25, 1986; January 24, 1991, p. B3; November 28, 1995, pp. C1-C2; March 19, 1996.
Washington Post Book World, February 16, 1983; September 1, 1985; October 26, 1986; February 1, 1987; November 22, 1987; April 15, 1990, p. 7; June 24, 1993, p. C2; November 5, 1995, p. 4.
Goucher College Web site, http://www.faculty.goucher.edu/ (January 15, 2000).