SAVE ME, JOE LOUIS. By Madison Smartt Bell. Harcour Brace & Company. 351 pages. $23.95.
TWO down-and-out drifters meet in a park one night. One's a Southerner who went AWOL from the Army years ago. The other is a college graduate who seems to have no explanation for being where he is.
The two soon embark on a spree of unarmed automatic teller machine holdups that make the local news. Eventually they flee to Baltimore and hook up with a black ex-con who inspires them to higher stakes: armed robbery.
Madison Smartt Bell's seventh novel, "Save Me, Joe Louis," could go virtually anywhere from a setup like that. Instead, the novel takes a disappointing spin out to nowhere, stubbornly refusing to indulge in any drama whatever. The result is a book so understated that it makes the reader wonder what the author was trying to say in the first place.
"Save Me, Joe Louis" focuses mostly on Macrae, the ex-soldier whose biggest problem is a lack of direction and willpower. He accompanies the generally psychotic Charlie on bank machine robberies seemingly because he has nothing better to do.
When Macrae and Charlie meet the ex-con Porter in a bar in north Baltimore, it seems like things might be about to change. Porter, whose imprisonment for a bar brawl destroyed his life, is trying to keep straight when he meets up with the two. He soon finds himself a part of the robbery team, however, stuck in a rut like everyone else in the novel.
Eventually Macrae and company end up back down South on the drifter's home turf, sitting on the porch and experiencing boredom beyond belief. Unfortunately for the reader, this isn't an eye-of-the-hurricane sort of boredom, or a reflective meditative sort of boredom, or even a intellectual European-style ennui. It's just plain old sit-on-the-stoop-and-listen-to-the- grass-wave boredom.
Mr. Bell, the author of the highly praised "Soldier's Joy" and "Doctor Sleep" and a teacher in the English departments at Goucher and Johns Hopkins (I attended his fiction workshop at the latter several years ago), is certainly a proficient writer. Yet with "Joe Louis," Mr. Bell seems to be deliberately holding back. The novel is so subdued as to be anti-dramatic.
Mr. Bell is certainly a talented story-teller. Those interested in reading his work, however, might want to start somewhere other than "Save Me, Joe Louis."
David Edelman writes from Baltimore.