Bell's 'Doctor Sleep': Hard-boiled detective story has metaphysical overtones

January 27, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse


Madison Smartt Bell.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

290 pages. $19.95. Madison Smartt Bell's eighth work of fiction is a wonderfully inventive novel in the genre of the hard-boiled detective story, with metaphysical overtones. The protagonist, Adrian Strother, is young American hypnotist living in London, who suffers from insomnia and is unable or unwilling to cure himself. He has a painful, hidden past, a troubled present and an uncertain future.

As a hypnotist, Adrian is a detective of the mind. He is a metaphysician, entranced by the world system of Giordano Bruno and by the legends of the Sufi mystics. He is a proponent of magic against science and against organized religion. Scientists went wrong, he believes, "when they decided to treat matter as inanimate and vivisect it down to its utmost particles -- matter lost its temper and started burning down the house." According to his system of belief, "everything in the world is alive . . . and everything that lives is holy [so that] evil [is] the world getting back at us . . . for trying to kill it."

Like the classic dick of detective fiction, Adrian is a small-time operator and opportunist whose exalted vision contrasts with his checkered circumstances. His independent practice consists primarily of trying to help people quit smoking and the like. As an illegal alien, he has been coerced into working for Scotland Yard, secretly hypnotizing suspects under the direction of a poker-faced, phlegmatic chief he calls the Dutchman. He also moonlights as a hypnotist in a floor show at the Empress, a shady nightclub owned by a drug lord, Walter Karnock. Caught between the forces of law and order on the one hand, and of the criminal underworld on the other, Adrian discovers that they mirror each other.

When the novel opens, he has just been left again by his girl, Clara, an abandonment that takes the self-absorbed Adrian some time to discover. His desire to get Clara back and his wish for sleep give the story its impetus, yet Adrian often is distracted on his quest. He is always on the go, sustained by his nervous energy, his wits, alcohol and coffee. The fast-paced narrative is compressed into three action-packed days and sleepless nights. Adrian gets into trouble and is presented with opportunities for failure and redemption. His New York past travels across the Atlantic to affect him in encounters with his former best friend, Stuart, and lover, Nicole.

The facts of Adrian's previous existence are gradually revealed, clues that illuminate his current predicament. He and Stuart were junkies, and their friendship was a bond of addiction, desperation and suspicion. Nicole was Stuart's lover, who prostituted for him and whom he physically abused. When Adrian secretly became Nicole's lover also, he entered into a destructive triangle in which he was unable or unwilling to help Nicole, Stuart or himself." The fact of our secret had become more important than its content," Adrian says.

His secrecy, his lack of trust, his tendency to live in a dream world are what Clara holds against him. "I don't want to be a goddess in your mystery cult," she says when ultimately they confront each other. Under her clear-eyed scrutiny (Clara = clear; she is an artist), his carefully constructed mysticism withers into an obsession and a defense.

Readers of Mr. Bell's fiction will find in "Doctor Sleep" his characteristic mixture of exaltation and degradation as well as .. his concern with victims, victimizers and saviors. As a hypnotist, Adrian discovers the secrets that deform other peoples' lives. In the cases of Walter Karnock and of Miss Peavey, a client suffering from a multiple personality disorder, he acquires the power to destroy and to heal.

Mr. Bell, the writer-in-residence at Goucher College, typically introduces animals into his fiction, which function both as symbols and as explorations of human connections to bestiality. His recent collection of stories, "Barking Man," linked men to dogs. What the dog is in "Barking Man," the snake is in "Doctor Sleep." Adrian keeps a boa constrictor for a pet, which he prefers for its beauty and its indifference. He needs only to feed it and warm it occasionally with his body heat. According to his belief, a mythical snake lodges in the spine of every human being. Snakelike references and images of rings and spirals appear throughout the book. A tunnel in the London Underground unwinds like a snake. Adrian refers to the "ascending spiral of my power." The drug detoxification program Stuart is involved with is called the Spiral Center.

In the opening scene, Adrian purchases a mouse to feed his snake. The snake's refusal throughout the novel to eat the mouse functions as a mirroring subplot that is at once comic and ultimately symbolic. Adrian's discovery that he has mistaken metamorphosis -- the snake's shedding of its skin -- for death prefigures the news of Miss Peavey's cure and his own choice between suicide and life. Even the sleep that eludes Adrian enigmatically resembles both death and rebirth. "Doctor Sleep" is a poetic thriller, perfectly orchestrated, beautifully written, reverberant and entertaining.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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