Modern, Urban Look at `Ten Indians'

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

Modern, Urban Look at `Ten Indians'


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Madison Smartt Bell came on the literary scene in the mid-1980s, and his output since that time has been consistently admired. "Ten Indians" makes the 11th work of fiction by this writer, reckoned one of America's 20 best under age 40 by Granta magazine and both a National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist.

His new story's title recalls Agatha Christie's in which a group of middle-class English people at a country-house party are murdered one by one, per the children's nursery rhyme. Both rhyme, and Christie's tale when it came out in 1935 used to employ a word other than "Indians," one no longer acceptable to use, though it continues to have resonance for Trig, the young black man doing time in Mr. Bell's tale.

Trig's black friends, and enemies, also will be killed one at a time (though there is no mystery about who is doing it), providing the novel's momentum. Mr. Bell even numbers his chapters backward, starting with 10, after Trig has galvanized our attention in an introductory chapter in which he is stabbed in the neck and almost killed by another inmate, a white man sporting an Aryan Nation tattoo.

Trig's long, lonely walk to the prison infirmary - the warders or "hacks," terrified of blood in the age of AIDS, don't help him - testifies to Mr. Bell's imagination and painterly style. For Trig, the near-fatal trauma prompts recollection of the chain of events that got him there, and to that extent the story is told in retrospect.

The setting is Baltimore, giving the book something like local interest for Washingtonians. Lexington and Hollins markets come into the story briefly, and down-at-the-heel McDonough Street north of Johns Hopkins Hospital is where Mike Devlin, a 46-year-old white man, opens his tae kwon do school for inner-city black youth.

Mr. Bell is at home among his Baltimore neighborhoods (he lives there) and their people, including the young crack dealers, their women, children and grandmas, the latter seeming to be just about the only nurturing people around. He has a particularly nice feel for Baltimore weather - blustery and changeable, as is the way with northern port cities - and he often brings it in to enhance a scene's emotive power.

After Devlin has closed the padlock on the gate of his newly rented storefront space where he plans to open his new school, afternoon sunshine after rain throws "people on the street into electric relief."

Sharmane is Trig's half-sister and will inherit the toddler everyone calls Froggy after his mother is accidentally shot dead on the sidewalk. She also notices the weather that afternoon, looking out from the Poe Homes development where she lives with Gramma Reen (Mrs. Irene Packer) and where other of Trig's bunch - D-Trak, Mud-dog and Odell, who calls himself Freon since getting back from Los Angeles - like to visit. In Sharmane's rough eloquence (Mr. Bell has the voice down well):

"Across the street the trash and weeds in the vacant lots was still slick from the rain, and shiny. But it was sunny then. The rain clouds all rip open and drifting away past the dome of the B&O roundhouse down on Pratt Street. Red sunlight striping lowdown over the stoved roofs and burnt-out windowframes of them little two-story shells on the other side of the block."

After - even before - the changeable, cloudy weather, it is images of bloody redness pulsing through the book that impress and keep us mindful that this is the sort of story in which trouble not only is to be expected, but probably is waiting around the next corner.

It is autumn at the start, and Devlin, out running at twilight in his suburban neighborhood, notices "a Japanese maple charged a rich blood red in a nearby yard. …

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