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Book Review : A Thriller Done With Mirror Images

September 15, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell (Ticknor & Fields: $15.95)

There is something in all novelists that wants to show off, show that you can do it --work magic, pull off an effect, create a scene, a world that, by definition, no one but you has ever imagined before.

Madison Smartt Bell's last book, "Waiting for the End of the World," featured one dazzling special effect after another. An alienated hero in the bowels of broken-down New York discovered a cache of radioactive material and a maze of pipes beneath the city subway system. But adjunct to that horror was another kind of flotsam or residue, an entire other human society living below the earth-crust of New York--white and pulpy, horribly alive, reptilian alter egos to the main characters who worked out their destinies above ground.

The images overpowered the story the last time, but in this third novel--as the title, with its four or five separate connotations, implies--Madison Smartt Bell has decided to play it straight.

"Straight Cut" comes to us as a somber thriller--a story about drugs and drug smuggling, as familiar to us in its contours as last Friday night's "Miami Vice." But the novel relies on another respected tradition: the thriller told in the first person by an anti-hero perched on a thin fence between victory and defeat. "Straight Cut" most resembles a James Cain novel--"Double Indemnity," perhaps, or "Serenade."

Tracy Bateman is a man living at the very middle of his life, cut off from his past, terrified of what he fears is his future. He vegetates on his old family farm, but nature, as he looks at it, has turned to nightmare: The fences are down, the grass is brown, the sheep are dying, his dog is dying. His wife--for reasons he hates even to guess at--has left him. The veterinarian tells Tracy he must put his dog to sleep, but the "shot" Tracy chooses comes from a syringe instead of a gun. The dog, safe in his master's lap having his ears scratched, dies in the throes of a deceptive ecstasy.

Then comes the phone call that will jolt Tracy's life out of its illusion of calm.

The call is from Kevin, Tracy's former best friend. Together they once made up one single creative self: Kevin was a low-budget film producer, living very well on the margin of the industry, crossing borders from one country to another, one state-of-mind to another, using his instincts to get what he wanted; Tracy was his shadow, his superego, editor to his creations, controlled analyst to his instinctive performances. In movie terms, Tracy was Kevin's film cutter, imposing order on the chaos of miles of unedited dailies.

In their other, darker, drug-smuggling life it was Kevin who came up with the bright ideas, Tracy who thought out the dark and detailed plans of how to bring them off. Ricocheting between them was Lauren, a woman who had known them both for years, been lover to them both, and who did that short stint as Tracy's wife.

The external conflicts here are set up almost as traditionally as the thriller form. Two men compete for the same beautiful woman. And further, old friend/enemy calls on hero for one last adventure that can only end up being bad news. The hero (and the author) keep the reader in the dark for as long as possible about all of this. As far as Tracy lets us know, he's only being hired by Kevin to cut a documentary film in Rome for a very high price. But once Tracy gets to Rome he finds that Lauren is already there, and their relationship--their love?--begins again.

Anyone can see there's something phony about the whole setup. Kevin has to be pulling the strings, producing a larger cosmic film in which Lauren and Tracy play unwilling parts.

Tracy is not quite the plodding analyzer he represents himself to be. And while the rest of his world is dithering on about hard drugs, the quiet editor is fighting an addiction of his own: booze.

The liquor is to deaden his consciousness and his conscience. And even as Tracy carefully surveys the external world for every hidden detail, he keeps his own unconscious carefully under wraps.

Bell is still obsessed in "Straight Cut" with mirror images of things, the above-and-below of life, but he's got his obsessions under control in this one. When Tracy goes diving in inky depths, it's part of the plot and not an authorial tour de force. The water of the East River is so acidic that it burns his skin, just a hint of corrosive underground madness, mentioned in a paragraph or two and left to burn away at the reader's mind while the quiet thriller threads its way to a conclusion no less effective because we know what it will be.

This is a mature book, in the very best sense.

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