cerned with distance and poweriessness,nthe difficulties that people encounternin trying to act charitably.nStraight Cut (1986) is a fairiy straightforwardnsuspense novel; the motivationnfor the drug smuggling it treats is greedncomplicated by some perfunctory existentialistnposturing. In 1987 Bell publishednThe Year of Silence, a novel thatntakes his reliance upon mystery to whatnmay be an ultimate limit. In this booknthe protagonist, a suicide named Marian,nis already dead; the story is aboutnher absence from the world, the holenshe leaves in the scheme of things.nIn his newest novel, Soldier’s Joy,nBell once more hides the heart of hisnnarrative, the motives of his characters,nin purblind mystery. But this time thenstrategy is unsuccessful. A darkenednand ominous atmosphere does notnexude from the groundwork of thennarrative, as in The Year of Silence;nthere is only a flatly lit murk that lifts innpatches to show a banal and featurelessnlandscape. Reading Soldier’s Joy is likendriving in night fog through the DismalnSwamp; headlights only make thenmist more opaque and when it sometimesndisperses, one section of treepiercednwater looks the same as anynother.nJoseph Conrad pretty much perfectednthe art of luscious obfuscation innfiction. The Nigger of the Narcissusnand Under Western Eyes are all thenmore entrancing because we understandnthat we shall never completelynunderstand them. But in Victory thisncalculated mysteriousness is clumsilynartificial, and in Lord Jim it seems onlyna pretext for long-windedness. In ordernfor mysteriousness to succeed as anstrategy, it is necessary to have the kindnof story in which it must not be noticednas a strategy.nBell’s The Year of Silence is just thatnkind of story. There is a plangencynabout the design and about the deliberatenconcealment of relationships thatngives the book force and purpose. Wensay unthinkingly that drugs “undermine”nour society, but this novel showsnwhat the word truly means: that somenof the foundation stones, citizens benevolentnthough weak-minded, are beingnremoved. My description herenmakes the story sound moralistic, but itnis not. It is a strong narrative, and thenfact that we shall never know Marian,nno matter how much we learn aboutn36/CHRONICLESnher, only makes it stronger. Bell evennmanages to make clear the other side ofnthe paradox; Marian was a closelynprivate figure, and if we had known hernmore thoroughly as a person we wouldnthen know less of her circumstancesnthan we do in her absence. The Year ofnSilence is a quintessential story of thenmegalopolis, a locale that Bell treatsnwith relish, alert to its vibrancy as wellnas its hollow loneliness.nBut Soldier’s Joy is set in the countrysidennear Nashville, Tennessee, anplace where everyone knows everythingnabout everyone else. In order tonposition his characters in their customaryntaciturn isolation. Bell has had tonimagine three persons — Laidlaw,nRedmon, and Ratman — who comenfairly close to being hermits. Otherncharacters, the soi-disant Muslim, Raschid,nand Laidlaw’s girl friend,nAdrienne, are wayward loners. In fact,nthe only truly communal group thennovel admits is a bunch of bloodthirstynclodhoppers who seem to be amateurnKlansmen.nIn order to draw his separated figuresntogether in present time Bell positsnpast histories in which they werenconnected. Laidlaw and Ratman werenservice buddies in Vietnam; Laidlawnand Redmon were childhood friends.nBut Laidlaw is white and Redmonnblack, and they must pay the price ofninterracial friendship. Here comes,ntherefore, the Klan to give them misery.nBut these guys are Nam veterans,nright? They ain’t gonna let a bunchandumb rednecks mess them around.nRight?nRight. But it takes 360 pages to setnup this situation: in fact, it requiresnalmost 200 pages for Laidlaw to benreunited with Redmon, so that thenstory can even begin to begin. Once itndoes start, it offers some lurid funnbecause it is amusing to watch thenfiercely efficient weapons of contemporarynwarfare given employ in a civiliannlandscape. This imagery is whatngave First Blood, the first Rambo movie,nso much of its manic charm.nThat film, sappy as it is, makes morensense than Soldier’s Joy. Rambo was anmuch put-upon person. After all, thenmean old sheriff treated him ugly justnbecause he wore long hair, tramplingnhis constitutional rights like grapes in anwine vat. A man can take only so muchnnnbefore he has to start fighting back,nespecially when the • corrupt law enforcementnis his enemy. These clichesnmake up the rationale for Rambo’snprivate war.nBut in Soldier’s Joy Laidlaw and hisnfriends decide to battle the Klan fornreasons no better than impulse. ThenKlan is going to assassinate a blacknreligious leader named Brother Jacob.nIt is unclear why they have decided tondo so, and it is equally unclear why thenLaidlaw coterie takes a notion to protectnthis evangelist. The Klan thenndecides instead to abduct Brother Jacobnand march him through the woods.nNo one knows why: Laidlaw guessesnthat the Klansmen are merely improvising.nIn one of the ensuing ambushesnLaidlaw kills someone he did not meannto kill, an innocent man named EarlnGiles. His friend Redmon tries to consolenhim: “Don’t you know he oughtnnot to been there?” Laidlaw replies:n”But whoever said / was supposed tonbe running around with a gun in mynhands?”nIn a novel that is 465 pages long,nthis question should have been askednsooner than page 460.nThe Vietnam experience producednamong American veterans a largennumber of brokenhearted loners. But itnalso produced a large number of veterannalliances of various political stripesnand with various social agendas. Part ofnthe theme of Soldier’s Joy seems to benthat a need for personal revenge, couplednwith guerrilla tactics, is a way toncombat racial injustice. That is a ridiculousnnotion, of course, and whennacted upon results in disaster. It isnunlikely too that characters like Laidlawnand his friends, who are intelligentnand canny however emotionally injured,ncould ever seriously find a motivenfor their actions in such a forlornnimpulse. Bell does his best to convincenus that the final carnage must takenplace, but does not succeed.nWhen large social concerns such asnracial injustice are at stake in a novel, itnis probably best for a writer to employncharacters who are included in largensocial contexts. The embittered loner isna lyric and striking figure, but toonself-involved and ill-informed, too personallynpassionate, for his actions toninscribe broad meanings upon socialnsubjects. Both the Klansmen and theirncrusader combatants in Soldier’s Joyn