« Return to this article

Know the West

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


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.