THE COLOR OF NIGHT
By Madison Smartt Bell
Vintage Books, $15, 208 pages
Is this book weird or wonderful, disturbing or compelling, mysterious or mystical? How about all of the above? In this, his 16th work of fiction, Madison Smartt Bell proves once again that he deserves to be far better known and more widely read.
Increasingly unsettling and ultimately scarifying, "The Color of Night" begins with the middle-aged Mae, a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino, watching - over and over again - the collapse of the Twin Towers. The core evil in that heinous act is not the only reason for her near obsession. The other reason is that in one of the crowd shots she sees Laurel, her former lover: "Blood was running from the corner of her mouth, like in the old days, but not for the same reasons."
Such references and hints abound as Mae tells her tale, and before long we realize that she and Laurel were members of The People, a group of lost and eventually murderous souls living collectively on a rural property under the spell of a madman whom Mae refers to only as "D." In fact, Laurel and Mae were more than mere members; they both played active roles in the killings of random victims in a posh home in Los Angeles.
So what we have here, beneath a thin veneer of fiction, is the Manson Family killings. But what a beautiful veneer it is, if one can use that word in relation to acts of such violent depravity.
The reader is, however, forewarned. In an untitled acknowledgments paragraph placed upfront, Mr. Bell writes that for years he has said his work is "dictated to me by daemons," and calls this book "*urely ... the most vicious and appalling story ever to pass through my hand to the page." He follows that with a frontispiece quote from Iris Murdoch's "The Unicorn":
"The victims of power, and any power has its victims, are themselves infected. They have then to pass it on, to use the power on others."
To prove that point, the author flashes back though Mae's life, and we meet the family - the inept and colorless father, the constantly complaining mother (so detested by Mae that she refers to her only as "the Mom-thing"), and then the elder brother, Terrell, a world-class sicko made even worse by his service in Vietnam. Incest is but one of his favorite pastimes. Others include bestiality, torture, arson - you name it.
He is particularly fond of weapons - guns and, especially, knives. Weaponry is but one of those powers (referred to by Iris Murdoch) that he passes on to his sister beginning when she was 11 and he 15.
They find a knife in the woods, and it becomes a totem of terror. Mae tells us, "Terrell, possessive of most of his things, shared this weapon equally with me. The blade was a glossy smooth black, like glass, and if we turned it at a certain angle to the light, we saw flecks of gold drifting deep down inside it, like warm stars in a faraway galaxy." (It's characteristic of Mr. Bell that some of his most beautiful writing occurs within contexts that are anything but.)
We eventually learn that Mae and Laurel were the only ones who escaped when the authorities raided the "farm" where D held diabolical sway over his colony of lost and pitiful souls. After the two women split up, Laurel returns (defects?) to the straight world, but Mae opts to live in a weird demimonde under an assumed name.
Her home is a trailer on the edge of the desert, and when she returns after work she likes to take her rifle out into the bleak darkness. Sometimes, spying a coyote, she just aims, other times not.
Seeing Laurel in the Sept. 11 shots, Mae becomes determined to find her and reunite. That misbegotten dream becomes the engine of the story, along with the side trips into Mae's unsettling past, and much time spent reconstructing the days with D and others on the farm.
It's all very eerie, and all very well told. As in the best of fiction, the author shows you what happens. Mr. Bell is one of those writers who can't write a bad sentence, which keeps you reading even when the scene at hand is repellant. He is very good at re-creating the very bad.
In the end, Mr. Bell's artistry transcends his use of the Manson case. What comes across with a powerful impact is the terrible truth - one we keep rediscovering with each new madman killing - that a horribly abused child often grows up to become a horribly abusive adult.
Read it and weep.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
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