Bell's 'Anything Goes': a slice of Dixie

July 07, 2002|By Dorothea Straus | By Dorothea Straus,Special to the Sun

Anything Goes, by Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon Books 306 pages. $24.

Madison Smartt Bell is known for his historical novels. This is his 14th publication, and it is classified, in that much used and abused category, as a story about growing up. The narrator, Jesse, is a guitarist in a rock band and he encounters natives along his way through the South. At every stop, including Nashville and Miami, the players, just like politicians, meet at a conference table in the bars and cafeterias for talk, much of it incomprehensible to outsiders.

"Was he blowing a doobie -- ?" asks Perry, the leader of the group.

The characters in Anything Goes are vague, identifiable, mainly, by their names: Perry, Chris, Estelle, Willard, Allston, Rose-Lee, Jesse. Jesse is the youngest and has joined recently. To add to his uncertainties, he is Melungeon -- part Caucasian, part American Indian from the southern area of the Appalachians. When he looks in the mirror, he muses, "I have the Melungeon face, whatever that means -- it had something to do with my mother's split the minute I was born -- almost, but I really didn't know if it was she or Daddy was the one -- I never knew if it was something you just were, or like being black or something, you had to do something along with it, like being a Jew." Jesse bore this burden, as well as that of being the only child of an unloving father and the myriad painful insecurities of adolescence. Others in the band suffered from similar malaise in their growing up.

On tour, Jesse falls in love, tentatively, with Stella, the leading singer who later is revealed to be his father's present wife. The baby, James Calla, whom she transports like an extra, essential piece of luggage, turns out to be Jesse's half brother. During their travels Jesse's father shows up, now and then, and his frugal gestures of affection directed at Jesse are interpreted as the love he never had.

His father arrives unannounced in a beautifully preserved car. "We all clomped down off the porch and over to the Mustang," Jesse relates. The interior "was all polished and perfect, even injected somehow with new-car smell, which was quite a trick considering the car was around thirty years old." In Jesse's world, cars could stand for people and he felt a surge of admiration for his feckless parent.

The novel concludes on a note of jubilation, a cock's crow, when Jesse's words bond him with his music. After several drafts, he discovers:

"Cocaine makes you talk fast Liquor slows you down Everything goes in the trash Everything goes down

"Seven songs inside your head Seven sets of words you know I know

"You know, you know, you know "

The reader remains unmoved by Jesse's awakening, as before, by the trials of his adolescence. The achievement of Madison Smartt Bell is in the presentation of the South: its tawdry towns, its motels and the Black Cat chain of bars, the stretches of thruway alive with vans and glossy automobiles. The members of the rock-blues group merge with the beat of their playing, the individuality consumed by their songs. Anything Goes is a slice of Americana, a chapter of current history bedecked in the guise of a psychological novel.

Dorothea Straus has written seven books, and her work has been published in Yale Review, Raritan, Partisan Review, Fiction, Commentary, Confrontation, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The Baltimore Sun. She lives in New York City.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.