The latest fiction from versatile and distinguished veteran Bell (Devil’s Dream, 2009, etc.) provides a grim, pitiless look at the ways that violence perpetuates itself.
Mae is a middle-aged woman in desert self-exile. By day she deals blackjack in a casino; by night she roams the sere landscape above her trailer, peering out at the world through a rifle sight—a predator in semi-retirement. After 9/11, she sits rapt—and a little enraptured—before her television, watching endless replays of the crashing planes in a way that has an unmistakable erotic charge: "a plane biting into the side of a building, its teeth on the underside where the mouth of a shark is." Then, in a shot of survivors crawling from the wreckage, she spots her ex-lover Laurel—bloodied, kneeling, supplicant. Mae records the image, makes an endless loop of it and begins watching the clip obsessively. She dispatches a friend to locate Laurel, whom she hasn't seen in decades—and who, like Mae, has good reason to be unfindable. Meanwhile, Mae begins reflecting on the unbroken chain of violence that has made her the damaged, semi-feral person she is. First came five years of incestuous abuse by her brother, who taught her both to hunt and to cut herself, a habit she's carried on all these years; then her would-be escape to San Francisco, where she immediately fell first into prostitution and then into this novel's chilling version of the Manson family. The book's devotion to anatomizing and exploring violence in all its forms—it resembles at times a hybrid of mid-career Cormac McCarthy and the film collaborations of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez—can make it wobble between poignancy and near-parody—eventually it devolves into something like a body count conducted in lyric prose. Further, the echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice seem overdone. But Bell's skills as a novelist are amply in evidence, and the reader cannot quite look away.
A cold, dark novel—but a worthy one.