Dark, violent view of last half century

By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2011

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It’s not uncommon to read at the beginning of a book a few words along the lines of “Names of some people and/or places have been changed.’’ But few novels begin with a disclaimer like this:

“I have always said that my work is dictated to me by daemons. People probably think that’s a figure of speech; maybe this book will prove it literal. Surely it is the most vicious and appalling story ever to pass through my hand to the page, so inevitably some people will hate it.’’

That’s the preamble/apology found on an opening page of Madison Smartt Bell’s “The Color of Night,’’ a slim, fierce novel told through the eyes of an aging death-cult survivor.

As in previous works, Bell again explores the intersection of history, memory, and the self. But his more recent novels have tended toward more conventional topics, like the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest of “Devil’s Dream’’ (2009), or Toussaint Louverture, the freed slave who led the Haitian Revolution and who became the subject of a trilogy of novels plus one biography by Bell. So the disclaimer provides a welcome heads up. With 74 chapters mostly three pages or less, “The Color of Night’’ may seem a quick read. But it’s no easy row to hoe.

Our first-person narrator, the 60-something Mae, grapples with the weight of trauma as she tells of her dark past marred by incest, physical and psychological abuse, prostitution, and worse. What unfolds are three intermingled narratives. One: flashbacks to a childhood populated with kudzu, absent parents, and violent sexual games with her brother. Two: a later past around the Summer of Love when, as a young runaway, she falls in with a Manson family-like commune called “The People.’’ And three: her near-sociopathic present. Here, she deals blackjack in a Las Vegas casino; dials her old flame, Laurel, a fellow cultist who escaped the ruination of the World Trade Center; and feels hunted by surveillance cameras as well as by men.

Mae also prowls the night desert with a rifle. In one scene, after bagging a coyote, she skins it. “I stood up slowly, raising the limp skin by its shoulder, and looked into the vacant eyeholes of the god mask,’’ Bell writes. “Presence in absence. The unavoidable fixed stare. If the features seemed to shiver it must have been because my hands were slightly trembling. The smile now curling fondly at the corners, peeled from its blood-stained teeth, which lay near me on the ground.’’ With a bleak nod to Cormac McCarthy, “The Color of Night’’ often reads like a hybrid of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’’ and “Helter Skelter.’’

Bell bases the middle narrative, chock with toe rings, velvet bellbottoms, and magic mushrooms, on the real events of the 1969 killings. Charles Manson becomes “D—’’; a musician named “O—’’ is probably Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, who introduced Manson to the music world. “Squeaky’’ Fromme, “Tex’’ Watson, and other family members are replaced by characters named Creamy, Crunchy, Stitch, and Eerie. Bell’s prose rings home the cult’s soulless lie of being “One.’’ Before one killing, Mae and others sit outside a victim’s house, smoking weed. “The car ticked cool. It filled up with a single thought shared by the five of us, and though I couldn’t have said it I felt like I knew what it was.’’

Where Bell overindulges himself, “The Color of Night’’ stumbles. Perhaps lines like “When we kissed it was like springwater pouring from her mouth to mine’’ are meant to be taken as Mae’s dippier, hippie voice. Perhaps images like “the wine-dark emptiness of the universe’’ and actual passages of untranslated Greek are to infuse cult activities with Dionysian gravity. Or perhaps they’re lazy shorthand for better prose that surely Bell has the tools to fashion. Certainly the novel includes a few too many “open wound[s] of emptiness,’’ and its storylines end in violence.

Is the novel “vicious and appalling,’’ as we’re warned? For most readers, probably. Is the novel necessary? Probably not. At its best, “The Color of Night’’ captures the creepier side of that era’s promise of free love. As Mae says toward the close of the novel, toward the end of her life, love has become “a little squeak of nothingness. The last exhalation of a mouse as its spine popped in a trap.’’

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.’’ Contact him through www.ethangilsdorf .com.

By Madison Smartt Bell
Vintage, 208 pp., paperback, $15