The aftermath of violence: A review of The Color of Night

  • Las Vegas

    Istock
 

The Color of Night
Madison Smartt Bell
208 pages, softcover: $15.
Vintage Contemporaries, 2011.

Dangerous, charismatic leaders with zealous followers haunt Western history, with Jim Jones, the California cult leader responsible for the 1978 Guyana suicides, at the top of the list. In The Color of Night, Madison Smartt Bell's 13th novel, the leader is clearly Charles Manson, although he's given a different name here. His deranged follower, Mae, narrates this dark tale of American excess.

Bell addresses his reader pointblank in a brief author's note: "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." Only the bravest reader would continue after such a caveat. Those who do will be, by turns, transfixed and horrified by the violence, sex and greed that pervade the book.

As a child, Mae was molested and tortured by her brother for years while her parents ignored them both. "Afterward, my head would be blank, empty as two halves of a vase, glued back together," she recalls. Later, Mae joins up with a cult called The Family and participates in killings modeled on the 1969 Tate-La Bianca murders. After the arrest of the cult leader and some of his followers, Mae, a fugitive, drifts around the West, settling in Nevada, until a former compatriot reveals her presence to the authorities.

On the day the novel begins, Sept. 12, 2001, Mae is a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas. Inside the timeless world of the casino, no one yet knows what happened in New York City the day before. Coming home to her trailer in the desert, Mae turns on the TV and is mesmerized. As the tale shimmers from myth back to hardcore reality, Orpheus and other mythological figures make appearances. The damaged Mae totes her rifle through the desert night and later to Manhattan to exorcise her demons, searching for a sister fugitive, her former lover, whom she believes ratted her out to the FBI. And murder follows.

This novel is not for the squeamish or those in need of comfortable stories with reassuring endings. Mae stands for the violence inside all of us, our yearning toward entropy and an emotional darkness deeper than the color of night.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...