Pounding the Dents Out : BARKING MAN AND OTHER STORIES <i> By Madison Smartt Bell (Ticknor & Fields: $19.95; 230 pp.; 0-89919-835-X) </i>
Light, shadows and light. That is the moral progression that novelist Madison Smartt Bell develops in the 10 tales of “Barking Man and Other Stories,” his haunting, protean, compassionate second collection.
Through the five stories that comprise Part I, the characters, human and nonhuman--the narrator of the opening story, “Holding Together,” is a scholarly white mouse--are beaten by life. They suffer, struggle, are defeated, make tragic mistakes, but somehow endure. At their core, they find courage and hope, sometimes even honor. Their inner dignity may get battered, but they pound most of the dents out.
The tone darkens when we enter Part II. Alf, the “Barking Man,” educated and highly intelligent, is unable to bear the responsibility of being a human adult, and while he evolves a way of coping with life that has him retreating into canine fantasy, he simultaneously sacrifices one of his most important capacities--being able to love--because that too carries responsibility, of which he wants no part.
Bell’s profound compassion and his wise, forgiving vision that avoids contempt and harsh judgment but is never blind to the world’s ugliness, are given wondrously varied and eloquent expression in these stories. His voice and style is so natural, so brilliantly authentic and individual, that we immediately enter the mind of the narrator or the world of the characters.
Evidence of Bell’s stylistic virtuousity in the face of technical difficulty is the perfect pitch of “Holding Together.” In this story of three white mice of superior cultural breeding, sharing the ancestral “Legend of the Voyage from the Orient” and recently bought by a laboratory to be fed an experimental drug, the narrator, a mouse of the Scrivener class, watches with horror as the drug begins to make his companions psychotic. Bringing all of his philosophical resources to bear to hold the three together, the narrator mouse thinks: “Put aside those dreams of owls and snakes, for death must come to all mice finally, in one form or another. No, what I fear far more deeply is chaos.” The mind of this credible mouse is the most intellectually refined of the whole collection.
The other stories, though sharing an omniscient point of view, reveal different tones, rhythms and levels of complexity and elegance, as the settings shift from the French Riviera to New York, Alabama, London.
Another dimension of this collection is the powerful recurrence of certain motifs which, compellingly, are always directly or indirectly related to the unifying moral principle.
For example “Finding Natasha” and “Move On Up” are about men looking for women. Stuart, a newly cleaned-up drug addict, wanders through Manhattan and Brooklyn hoping to find Natasha. At one point, he explains to a sympathetic hooker that he feels a survivor’s responsibility. If he can help just one person, even Natasha, an almost hopeless junkie, who then can help someone else, perhaps he can precipitate a chain reaction of assistance.
Hal, homeless and unemployed, is seeking Judith’s body in “Move On Up” because he suspects she’s killed herself in a crack attack, and he wants to bury her with a little dignity.
Both Hal and Stuart are near the bottom materially but they shine spiritually.
The entire extraordinary collection is a splendid testament to Bell’s superb narrative, stylistic gifts and passionate humanity.