The title of Madison Smartt Bell’s newest novel is no lie: “The Color of Night” is a very dark book. It is a raw, spare, brilliant reimagination of the Charles Manson cult and a compelling deconstruction of how such evil originates and sustains itself.
That said, it is well that we ponder the value of such a work. It is not a read for every mood or season. It sounds about the same note as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or “Blood Meridian” when the spade of human understanding strikes the coffin of the human soul.
But without such fiction, it is unlikely we could ever plumb the mystery of humanity’s deepest inhumanities. Reason alone seems unable to confront their emotional depths, while a condemning moral certitude grants evildoers no sympathy, and if we cannot see any of us in them we can learn nothing.
The list of nonfiction that accomplishes insight into horrific crime is very short, probably not much longer than Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” and one can argue whether that is truly nonfiction at all.
The “Color of Night” is not about the convicted criminals we think we know, but about one who got away: Mae, a Las Vegas dealer and sometime prostitute, unable to escape the memories of her past or the ability to prevent reenacting it. Yet we are able to find some sympathy for her as the author reaches backward, exposing the roots of the tendrils of violence in Nevada and California in Mae’s disturbing, kudzu-choked childhood.
In the course of her saga, we are re-exposed to the dark side of the open-love, hippie world of the sixties but then are brought whip-snappingly to the day—and world—of 9/11 when, through the Internet, in only seven seconds, Mae finds that as a helter-skelter orphan she is not alone.
Bell keeps taking on the tough stuff while refusing to play to the cheap seats. “All Souls’ Rising,” the first in his trilogy on the Haitian slave revolt, was a National Book Award finalist.
His most recent novel was a reconstruction of the life of the troubling, brilliant Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man neo-abolitionists love to hate because of his slave-dealing past, controversial role in the slaughter of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, and leadership in the immediately postwar Ku Klux Klan. Bell’s version of a truly human Forrest pleases neither the neo-Confederates who deify him nor the radical leftists who blanket-condemn him.
Violence is common to all humanity, of course, but man’s inhumanity to women is particular, and nowhere more destructive than in the lives of women like Mae who suffer abuse from childhood and must find psychic if not moral values in their own tough core. For her, there seems no redemption, except in a final violent act whose significance will leave you puzzled and pondering—and with no comfortable moral escape. (Martin Northway)
“The Color of Night”
By Madison Smartt Bell
Vintage Books, $15, 228 pages