Two violent drifters stumble through Baltimore on the way to catastrophe

May 23, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

SAVE ME, JOE LOUIS.

Madison Smartt Bell.

Harcourt Brace & Co.

` 351 pages. $23.95.

In Madison Smartt Bell's chilling and enthralling new novel, two down-and-out men -- one under 30, the other at least 10 years older -- meet by hitting on each other for spare change in New York's Battery Park. Impulsively, they mug a young student couple, as the older man, Charlie, takes the initiative and the younger man, Macrae, follows passively along. Thus begins a partnership in crime that leads from mugging to murder and takes these men from the flophouses of Times Square to the South of their origins.

Mr. Bell, the writer-in-residence at Goucher College, explores how outlaws are made and how desperate people react desperately in an indifferent or hostile world. These themes have also engaged his imagination and animated his fiction in six previous novels and two collections of short stories -- from "The Washington Square Ensemble" (1983) to "Doctor Sleep" (1991), a thriller about a London hypnotist. Unlike the voluble Adrian Strother of "Doctor Sleep," Charlie and Macrae, like many of Mr. Bell's other characters, are taciturn men who live with repressed rage and a sense of failure.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Macrae, a Tennessee hillbilly and Army deserter. He possesses artistic ability but lacks the discipline and ambition to develop his talents. He seems a criminal more by circumstance than inclination, unlike Charlie, the son of a paper-mill worker from the Carolina shore, who is genuinely prone to violence. When Macrae acts violently independently of Charlie, his temper is noble: He is seeking to avenge a wrong done to a woman he loves. We learn that in the past he assaulted a neighbor who defamed his cousin, Lacy; the incident led to his joining the Army as an alternative to doing time in prison.

In New York, Macrae becomes involved with a young prostitute, Bea. Her murder by her pimp and Macrae's revenge are rendered in stunning scenes guaranteed to upset squeamish readers. While the violence that Mr. Bell describes may be -- and often is -- gratuitous, his writing is economical, poetic, dramatic and powerful. He has a particular flair for writing about violence; readers will find here his characteristic mixture of exaltation and degradation as well as his concern with victims, victimizers and saviors.

A botched hold-up sends Macrae and Charlie on the run to Baltimore. "I think they're big on seafood," Charlie informs his partner about the city. Macrae answers by saying he knows it's where the "Baltimore Tea Party" took place during "the War We Won."

By chance, they hook up with Porter, an ex-con, and continue their life of crime until they're forced to flee again -- this time to Macrae's Tennessee farm. There they exist in an uneasy truce with Macrae's cantankerous old father, who is blind from cataracts. Once home, Macrae adapts to farm life, and some of the most moving passages in the novel describe Macrae's transformation under the influences of habit and his past:

"In these last few weeks Macrae had slowed down and also steadied in a way disturbingly strange to Charlie. He passed from one chore to another, conserving a tiny reservoir of momentum that was just enough to keep him going at the same nearly imperceptible rate all day long. . . . Macrae tended all these things not so much like they mattered in particular but as if they came lockstep with breathing. It wouldn't last, though, not for Charlie anyway; he knew that. Something would happen, sooner or later, something would make it happen if it didn't on its own."

What does happen has consequences that catapult toward a catastrophic ending that holds out, at last, a small hope of redemption. The novel's title comes from Porter's recollection of the last words of the first criminal sentenced to die in the gas chamber. " 'Save me, Joe Louis,' Porter said. 'That's all they got.' "

Porter is amiable, indeed admirable -- more sinned against, it seems, than sinning. Charlie is his opposite -- a man who creates his own misfortunes and ensnares others along with him. He is not evil as much as amoral, reckless and ultimately rather stupid. True evil is reserved for Big Tee, the pimp who kills Bea.

Macrae is a drifter and a lost soul who must find within himself the will to take charge of his own life. Lacy, Macrae's cousin, whom he meets again in Tennessee, is a more impenetrable character. An educated woman and a photographer, she has returned home to pursue an artistic vision. Her disappointment in Macrae is certainly comprehensible; her love for him is more difficult to fathom.

Mr. Bell typically introduces animals into his fiction that function both as symbols and as human connections to bestiality. His last story collection, "Barking Man," linked men to dogs; in "Doctor Sleep," Adrian Strother keeps a boa constrictor for a pet, whose metamorphosis he confuses with death.

The crab convincingly carries the weight of Bell's symbolism in this novel. In Baltimore, appropriately, Charlie introduces Macrae eating crabs; later, on the run for murder, Charlie takes Macrae crabbing in a canoe using lines rolled on sticks, a net, a bushel basket and rancid meat for bait:

"The crabs lashed at each other, burbled, and rattled. 'They're all against each other, aren't they?' Macrae said. The crabs had settled into new locks, clutching each other at every point. Macrae thought he saw one that had closed a death grip on BTC itself. 'Oh yes,' Charlie said, returning the paddles to the water. 'That's nature, too.' "

Written with intelligence, moral insight and compassion, "Save Me, Joe Louis" is a taut, horrific story about inarticulate men leading unexamined lives, struggling for survival.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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