Bad, Bad Buddies : SAVE ME, JOE LOUIS, <i> By Madison Smartt Bell (Harcourt Brace: $23.95; 351 pp.)</i>

<i> Abrams is a free-lance writer</i>

When two guys with criminal tendencies go skidding across the country like a souped-up car with bad brakes and a bald set of tires, bad things are bound to happen. Talk about that American pastime, random violence--"Save Me, Joe Louis” has got it: shotgun killings, baseball-bat mayhem and what may be the only armed robbery ever committed to save a captured fox. It is the perfect vehicle for a sociopathic buddy movie--"Thelma and Louise” without the extenuating circumstances.

That said, it must be stressed that Madison Smartt Bell’s latest novel is richer in subtlety and nuance and a lot less romantic than might be expected in a genre that thrives on bold strokes and the frequent glorification of hard cases. It is both a good read and an ambitious, informed exploration of the underbelly of America.

The two chief characters, Charlie, an ex-con with a penchant for spur-of-the moment robbery, and Macrae, a hillbilly army deserter, are already loaded with deadly personal cargo before they meet on a cold autumn night in New York’s Battery Park. The chemistry between them creates the foul brew of their tale.

The two begin by perpetuating a common urban nightmare--forcing selected Manhattan pedestrians to visit the nearest bank machine and withdraw the daily cash limit, or all of their money, whichever comes first. This is a relatively innocent avocation compared with what comes later.


Charlie and Macrae use the proceeds from these early crimes to rent an apartment and hang out at bars and greasy spoons in the Times Square area. It is as close as they ever get to bliss. Naturally, things fall apart pretty quick. Macrae and a prostitute woo each other, angering the hooker’s pimp. After a bar fight and other grim preliminaries, the pimp kills the prostitute, executing her in front of Macrae with a heavy caliber pistol that splatters brains all over an alley.

Macrae, who usually is just along for the ride with Charlie, finds the will to act on his own. He carefully manufactures a lead-weighted baseball bat and begins stalking the pimp. The revenge is horrific.

Soon after, an impulsive holdup fails when the Korean store owner gives Macrae an educational flesh wound. Now wise enough to leave New York, Charlie and Macrae head south, landing first in Baltimore where they find haven with Porter, an ex-con whose duplex adjoins a crack house.

The three musketeers steal a few cars and then decide to hold up a liquor store. By now, Charlie and Macrae are using guns. The liquor store robbery fails, Charlie turns his shotgun on the cops, they escape by the skin of their gnashing teeth and flee southwest to Tennessee. There, the gang holes up on the hardscrabble farm of Macrae’s father, an old man in his last decline but still wily, unsentimental and inscrutable.


As a rural interlude, the Tennessee sojourn is anything but bucolic. Macrae meets an old nemesis at a barbecue and finds an old flame there, too. Meanwhile, Macrae begins to distance himself from Charlie. In his inchoate way Macrae is seeking redemption as he finds a small flicker of decency still burning in his heart.

But it is a tiny flicker, indeed.

Bell seems to know intimately the seedy sides of New York, Baltimore and the ex-urban south of housing developments and shopping centers abutting old, dying farms. He renders each locale exquisitely and seems as familiar with street jive as redneck vernacular. For fans of symbolism, Bell throws in an elaborate and deft use of legendary boxer Joe Louis as an icon for the down and out. In fact, the novel’s title derives from an anecdote about Louis and a condemned criminal.

There are many fine passages, including one tracing the steps of a successful crabbing expedition and another about the grittiness of a Tennessee hog roast:

“The men around the smoking pits were tired and sooty, a processed bourbon smell leaking out of their pores along with the green hickory smoke. Two whole hogs, cloven from jowl to tail, lay blackening on wire screens across the pits. A fat man seemed to be in charge. Sunburn ran all under his crew cut and down to the neck of his football jersey, a flashy acetate thing with a mesh curling flirtatiously over his guts. He reached on the rack and lifted a hind trotter, woggling the bone in the loosening meat.”

Help yourself.