THE WASHINGTON SQUARE ENSEMBLE by Madison Smartt Bell
Kirkus Star

THE WASHINGTON SQUARE ENSEMBLE

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Johnny B. (a.k.a. Dallacroce) peddles heroin in Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park. He does this with an uncommon amount of almost fastidious style, too, much dependent on his motley crew of lieutenants: his boyhood chum Holy Mother--Attica veteran, drug-addict, and at one time (like Johnny B.) a Gallo-gang hitman; the deeply spooked Santa Barbara, a Puerto Rican santeria believer; Yusuf Ali (black, Muslim, seven-foot tall, devout, extremely scary); and Porco Miserio, an avant-garde saxophonist, a wreck, and a big-mouth. Porco fails Johnny early on--and upon this Judas-like lapse (half-comic) most of the book's friable plot structure trembles. But the others are stalwart, largely due to Johnny B.'s personal charisma: he's a C.C.N.Y. grad, well-read, canny, safe, the elegant small-fry mobster if there ever was one. Furthermore, Johnny knows just enough about the psyches of each of his low-life helpers to keep them in utter thrall--and it's this foppish luck that draws the reader on through Bell's structurally dull but atmospherically electric pages. True, the book has a first-novel's faults, largely ones of ambition: Porco's transcendental sax honkings are described as though from inside his head, with fustian results; two auxiliary characters--cops--come so straightly out of a George V. Higgins novel that the ink still seems to cling to their ankles. But Bell has done wonderfully by the lower East Side: the writing about its places is brilliant and rich and funny. And, by making his platoon of scuzzballs into something possessed of dignity and undeserved luck, he writes freely and freshly against a reader's placid expectations. Bell is a writer, from this evidence, on whom one would do well to keep a careful, already-admiring eye; in the meantime, enjoy this flawed but ultimately winning debut for the street-smart marvel it is.

Pub Date: Feb. 24th, 1982
Publisher: Viking