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 ominous atmosphere does not exude from the groundwork of the narrative, as in The Year of Silence; there is only a flatly lit murk that lifts in patches to show a banal and featureless landscape. Reading Soldier’s Joy is like driving in night fog through the Dismal Swamp; headlights only make the mist more opaque and when it sometimes disperses, one section of tree-pierced water looks the same as any other.

Joseph Conrad pretty much perfected the art of luscious obfuscation in fiction. The Nigger of the Narcissus and Under Western Eyes are all the more entrancing because we understand that we shall never completely understand them. But in Victory this calculated mysteriousness is clumsily artificial, and in Lord Jim it seems only a pretext for long-windedness. In order for mysteriousness to succeed as a strategy, it is necessary to have the kind of story in which it must not be noticed as a strategy.

Bell’s The Year of Silence is just that kind of story. There is a plangency about the design and about the deliberate concealment of relationships that gives the book force and purpose. We say unthinkingly that drugs “undermine” our society, but this novel shows what the word truly means: that some of the foundation stones, citizens benevolent though weak-minded, are being removed. My description here makes the story sound moralistic, but it is not. It is a strong narrative, and the fact that we shall never know Marian, no matter how much we learn about her, only makes it stronger. Bell even manages to make clear the other side of the paradox; Marian was a closely private figure, and if we had known her more thoroughly as a person we would then know less of her circumstances than we do in her absence. The Year of Silence is a quintessential story of the megalopolis, a locale that Bell treats with relish, alert to its vibrancy as well as its hollow loneliness.

But Soldier’s Joy is set in the countryside near Nashville, Tennessee, a place where everyone knows everything about everyone else. In order to position his characters in their customary taciturn isolation. Bell has had to imagine three persons—Laidlaw, Redmon, and Ratman—who come fairly close to being hermits. Other characters, the soi-disant Muslim, Raschid, and Laidlaw’s girl friend, Adrienne, are wayward loners. In fact, the only truly communal group the novel admits is a bunch of bloodthirsty clodhoppers who seem to be amateur Klansmen.

In order to draw his separated figures together in present time Bell posits past histories in which they were connected. Laidlaw and Ratman were service buddies in Vietnam; Laidlaw and Redmon were childhood friends. But Laidlaw is white and Redmon black, and they must pay the price of interracial friendship. Here comes, therefore, the Klan to give them misery.

But these guys are Nam veterans, right? They ain’t gonna let a buncha dumb rednecks mess them around. Right?

Right. But it takes 360 pages to set up this situation: in fact, it requires almost 200 pages for Laidlaw to be reunited with Redmon, so that the story can even begin to begin. Once it does start, it offers some lurid fun because it is amusing to watch the fiercely efficient weapons of contemporary warfare given employ in a civilian landscape. This imagery is what gave First Blood, the first Rambo movie, so much of its manic charm.

That film, sappy as it is, makes more sense than Soldier’s Joy. Rambo was a much put-upon person. After all, the mean old sheriff treated him ugly just because he wore long hair, trampling his constitutional rights like grapes in a wine vat. A man can take only so much before he has to start fighting back, especially when the corrupt law enforcement is his enemy. These cliches make up the rationale for Rambo’s private war.

But in Soldier’s Joy Laidlaw and his friends decide to battle the Klan for reasons no better than impulse. The Klan is going to assassinate a black religious leader named Brother Jacob. It is unclear why they have decided to do so, and it is equally unclear why the Laidlaw coterie takes a notion to protect this evangelist. The Klan then decides instead to abduct Brother Jacob and march him through the woods. No one knows why: Laidlaw guesses that the Klansmen are merely improvising. In one of the ensuing ambushes Laidlaw kills someone he did not mean to kill, an innocent man named Earl Giles. His friend Redmon tries to console him: “Don’t you know he ought not to been there?” Laidlaw replies: “But whoever said / was supposed to be running around with a gun in my hands?”

In a novel that is 465 pages long, this question should have been asked sooner than page 460.

The Vietnam experience produced among American veterans a large number of brokenhearted loners. But it also produced a large number of veteran alliances of various political stripes and with various social agendas. Part of the theme of Soldier’s Joy seems to be that a need for personal revenge, coupled with guerrilla tactics, is a way to combat racial injustice. That is a ridiculous notion, of course, and when acted upon results in disaster. It is unlikely too that characters like Laidlaw and his friends, who are intelligent and canny however emotionally injured, could ever seriously find a motive for their actions in such a forlorn impulse. Bell does his best to convince us that the final carnage must take place, but does not succeed.

When large social concerns such as racial injustice are at stake in a novel, it is probably best for a writer to employ characters who are included in large social contexts. The embittered loner is a lyric and striking figure, but too self-involved and ill-informed, too personally passionate, for his actions to inscribe broad meanings upon social subjects. Both the Klansmen and their crusader combatants in Soldier’s Joy are equally irrelevant, equally misguided, equally shabby.

But if Bell’s talent and temperament impel him to choose the loner as protagonist, the present book also shows him as reaching out to broad concerns. He has not yet learned how to fill a large canvas, but he is one of the most gifted young novelists writing. With one kind of intense achievement behind him, he appears ready to strive toward a larger one. Soldier’s Joy, though it fails, is a serious and necessary part of that attempt.


[Soldier’s Joy, by Madison Smartt Bell (New York: Ticknor and Fields) 465 pp., $19.95]