SOLDIER'S JOY by Madison Smartt Bell


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Bell's gritty urban first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), has been followed by cliched genre efforts. His fifth--about a Vietnam vet who returns to his Tennessee roots to play bluegrass banjo and battle racism--is notable for its descriptions of banjo picking and the Tennessee hills, but is otherwise a disappointing thriller. Laidlaw, a loner shell-shocked from the war ("Trying to sleep was like trying not to float: a breathless winding descent that would inevitably reverse itself to spiral back up again"), roosts on his family's abandoned homestead outside Nashville. Besides picking, he develops "an addiction to the garden" and falls into a classic back-to-the-land trip, adopting a stray dog and raising stock with the help of Mr. Giles, who knew Laidlaw's daddy. All of this is very nice, for Bell is as good at describing hill country, and its culture as he is at evoking lower Greenwich Village, but it's also a slice-of-life without momentum or originality. Then enter Redmon, a black ex-con (he took the fall after a real-estate fraud) and Laidlaw's childhood friend, and the book becomes a buddy novel with a twist. Laidlaw just wants peace: he picks in public, takes up with a girl, and starts to gig at redneck bars. But the rednecks, including the real-estate fraud Goodbuddy, see him with Redman, decide he's a "nigger lover," and roust him one night, killing his dog. After that. it's all Vietnam again: Redmon and Laidlaw (the point-of-view alternates) circle each other, finally bonding, and then take on the redneck racist world. The apocalyptic shoot-'em-up ending is pure Hollywood: claymores, M-16s, the works. The whole thing blessedly ends with Redmon and the grievously wounded Laidlaw declaring undying love. Another story of vets back-in-the-world: this one offers lots of landscape but little depth. The prolific Bell, still young, still promising, seems less certain of his direction each time he writes.

Pub Date: June 8th, 1989
ISBN: 89919-836-8
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
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