At a time when much American fiction seems lost in self-imposed solipsism, when few writers bother to examine experience much different than their own, Madison Smartt Bell is pushing himself--and his readers--into vastly different worlds. In "All Souls Rising," published last year and nominated for a National Book Award, Bell brought his readers into the chaos and confusion of the Haitian slave uprising of 1791. In his new novel, "Ten Indians," Bell once again crosses the color line, taking us into the heart of Baltimore's inner city.
"Ten Indians" centers around the life of Mike Devlin, a prosperous middle-aged therapist who decides (for reasons never quite explicable to himself, or to the reader) to open a Tae Kwon Do school in one of Baltimore's worst neighborhoods. Though Devlin tries to maintain the school as a kind of "sanctuary" from the violence of the streets, he becomes drawn into one of the neighborhood's internecine drug wars--and finds his own life quickly spinning out of control.
There is much to admire here. "Ten Indians" is ingeniously constructed, as carefully controlled as the Tae Kwon Do rituals Bell so lovingly describes. Bell's prose, too, is taut and lean. There is, one realizes, a sort of lesson here: Bell's authorial control contrasts sharply with the random chaos of the world he describes, just as the rituals--and the controlled violence--of Devlin's Tae Kwon Do school contrast with the careless violence of the streets. There is a power, Bell suggests, in such self-control.
Refreshingly, though, in a world that seems oversupplied with "tough love" and undersupplied with love of the more conventional kind, this book is not simply an empty rehashing of "Dangerous Minds." Bell shies away from cheap melodrama and moral grandstanding--and shows the hubris inherent in Devlin's often misguided attempts to "fix" a world he doesn't really understand. Devlin, as one character notes to herself, doesn't mean any harm--but his actions cause harm nonetheless. Good intentions, the book makes clear, "[a]in't no excuse and don't make no difference."
It's a lesson Bell would do well to ponder himself. "Ten Indians" is a supremely well-intentioned book, but ultimately a disappointing one--a book that is too well-behaved for its own good. "Ten Indians" is full of villainy, but has no real villains; it's a battle of the blands. All of Bell's characters have souls; they just don't have much life to them. You can't hate the book, and you can't hate Bell for trying. You can only wish he had challenged himself, and his readers, a little bit more.