by Madison Smartt Bell ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 9, 1985
Bell, in his debut novel, The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), proved himself a sharp writer of urban darks and depths. He's gone a touch more commercial now, fashionably apocalyptic, with a semi-thriller about psychos organized into an anarchist band that intends to blow up New York with a homemade atomic weapon. But what remains most (if too rarely) stirring is Bell's gritty-city blues. The suspense, however, is woodenly inevitable and gothic and clichâ€šd (subway tunnel denouements, etc.). A rich ex-student radical-turned-clinical psychologist, Simon Rohnstock, is the evil genius to a bunch of misfits (Vietnam-, ghetto-, or mental-hospital-grads) whose rage he parlays into a devil's brew of destructiveness. But a Brooklyn photographer (and epileptic) named Larkin, nominally one of Simon's maniacs, is the only holder-back. An anti-hero of the old school, Larkin licks the gutter with his tongue but still has enough existential responsibility to ultimately destroy the plot and save the city. Bell relies far too much on diversionary gimmicks--case-like histories of each character, a summer month's worth of headline stories from the N.Y. Post--when he isn't straining Larkin's psyche through a net of agonized prose (""He stood in the middle of the bridge, forcing his paradoxes back to their separate mental chambers, trying to concentrate on the dark shapes of the city beyond the water, a vision which on this occasion failed him""). More water than wine here, then. The mean-streets, wacko side of New York is stark and menacing in Bell's simularcrum of them, but the book is too quick to jump out of the way of its own obviousness, thus never grabbing hold of its essential narrative. Talented writer, nervous book.
Pub Date: Aug. 9, 1985
Page Count: -
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1985
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