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Countdown : TEN INDIANS, By Madison Smartt Bell (Pantheon Books: 272 pp., $23)

December 15, 1996|KAI MARISTED | Kai Maristed is the author of two novels, "Fall" and "Out After Dark," and a collection of short stories to be published next year

"Ten Indians," the 11th volume of fiction by the gifted and prolific Madison Smartt Bell, follows closely on last year's acclaimed "All Souls' Rising." In that novel--500 pages set in late 18th century Haiti--the central character was a doctor, civilized and slight of stature, who wandered into a land defined by slavery and savage cruelty. Dr. Hebert, initially a distanced observer, eventually became enmeshed in the passions and violence erupting all around him.

On its gritty, contemporary surface, Bell's new book couldn't be more different. Set in present-day Baltimore, "Ten Indians" tells the tale of a winter in which the lives--and deaths--of a suburban white family converge with those of an array of interlinked downtown blacks. The chasm between these two worlds is bridged, and events set rolling with uncommon swiftness, thanks to the quixotic impulse of Mike Devlin, 46, husband, father, successful professional and black-belt disciple of the inscrutable Master Ryu.

Devlin, whose recent uncanny survival of a hit-and-run accident has shocked him into a sort of heightened consciousness, resolves to open a taekwondo school in the heart of the ghetto. "I can't just do nothing" is the mantra that pounds in his head. By the way, it's Dr. Devlin: a child psychologist, fit but on the short side and slight of build.

"Ten Indians" displays as loving a knowledge of Korean martial arts as the previous novel did of voodoo. Indeed, Devlin's goal is nothing less than the creation of a sanctuary, where jumpy young drug dealers will learn to put aside beepers, blades and guns in the shared transcendence of order and discipline. Mike's wife, however, remains skeptical: "There's something you want. You need to figure out what it is."

*

Mike surmises that he's suffering from "'hemorrhage of the male- midlife- crisis- biological- clock." Perhaps midlife, dinner-cooking Alice fails to appreciate this little joke because her husband has just "rescued" and brought home a "very black and glossy" baby boy, whose mother Mike happened to see killed in a drive-by shooting.

Shootings, kidnapping, hit-and-run, routine and inventive stabbings (the long nail punched into the neck, a device also used in the previous book), crack overdose, fist- and foot-fights, child neglect and abuse, a mounting toll of murder; in "Ten Indians" the action unrolls at thriller pace. Bell has a compelling, gut-gripping way with the violent incident. He is at least as mesmerized by human violence and inflicted pain as any reader is likely to be, and builds his tightly structured narrative primarily, and most convincingly, with such wrenchingly realized moments.

A third of the way in, however, when Devlin's dilemma over the amiable kidnapped baby finds a rather prosaic end, the novel suffers a sudden loss of pressure. One line of suspense ends; the next hasn't yet quite kicked in. Enough lull here for discomfort about who these Devlins are--Mike; wife Alice, whom he constantly scans for signs of age and decay; and their daughter, Michelle, "one nice-looking white girl," also a National Merit finalist and black-belt assistant at Dad's school and his general co-conspirator--a father's fantasy kid if ever there was one.

The home scenes unfold with sitcom predictability but little genuine exchange; in an atmosphere of somnambulist indifference and near-silence, secrets proliferate. Alice's rare utterances lean toward rhetorical sarcasm, a tone her daughter has picked up. Much later, when it becomes clear to Devlin that Michelle's actions expose her to obvious danger, he won't intervene. Is this anomie intended as typically middle class? One wonders: Why is Mike so set on "saving" unknown souls downtown when there is serious sweeping to be done at his own door?

A similar passivity pervades his attitude at work. For the messed-up kids he's paid to treat, he's "just a backboard, so people can talk to themselves." Given his avocational sport's real healing potential, why not expose those lost children to taekwondo?

At any rate, the studio in the 'hood prospers--initially, at least. Boxcar and Kool-whip, Gyp and Sharmane sign up, and soon Devlin is training his nemesis and alter-ego to-be: the handsome, Lexus-driving drug runner called Trig.

Trig's first-person monologue opens the book in a voice that flows forth like hot butter in the cadences of a personal, convincing variation on big-city black Americanese. Later chapters are narrated by Trig's cohorts from the "Poe Homes projects"--so named, with bull's-eye irony, because the master doomsayer's "historic" house is just up the block. Again, while the sketching of these kids' inner lives falls shy of original, their pure voice-music rings alive and true.

In "The Art of Fiction" David Lodge remarked: "'Symmetry . . . matters more to writers of fiction than readers consciously perceive." But in this novel, the hand of symmetry is hard to miss. As the song dictates, "'Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians . . . " and accordingly the chapters are numbered in reverse, 10 down to 1. Fine, but this sort of determinism pervades the plot, in which "doing the right thing" reverses repeatedly into disappointment or disaster. Too often the sense of tragedy is blunted by a movie-like either/or moral "showdown" that reduces the characters to pawns in an impassioned debate.

With all its headlong lack of ambiguity, the dramatic "Ten Indians" stands up well. Within the context of Bell's authentic obsessions--cruelty and fear as epitomized by our bizarre human invention, racism--it acquires echoes and reflections of a deeper kind.

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