The Color of Night

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Mae, a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino, spends her free time wandering the desert with a rifle, or sitting in her trailer obsessively watching replays of an old lover escaping the wreckage of 9/11. What she sees in those images is different from what the rest of us would see. She revels in the pure anarchy, thrills at the destruction. These images recall memories of a childhood marked by unthinkable abuse, of her drift into a cult that committed the most shocking crime of the '60s, of her life since then ...
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The Color of Night

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Mae, a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino, spends her free time wandering the desert with a rifle, or sitting in her trailer obsessively watching replays of an old lover escaping the wreckage of 9/11. What she sees in those images is different from what the rest of us would see. She revels in the pure anarchy, thrills at the destruction. These images recall memories of a childhood marked by unthinkable abuse, of her drift into a cult that committed the most shocking crime of the '60s, of her life since then as a feral and wary outsider, caught in a swirl of events at once personal, political, mythic.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A truly unnerving mythical novel that asks us to piece together what is left of a shattered collective unconscious. Bell's devastated, traumatized characters surf the debris of who we are and where we've been."--A.M. Homes, author of This Book Will Save Your Life

"A work that makes lucid the shadows and darkening corners that were encroaching on an America increasingly lost to its own history and self-respect. . . . As unforgettable as the events that inspired it." --Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers

"In twenty books written over nearly thirty years, Madison Smartt Bell has gone from a writer of enormous promise to a master and more, a living literary resource. As his avid admirers will be happy to tell you, if you haven't read him, you don't know what you're missing. The Color of Night is characteristically brilliant and compelling, a terrifying vision of American dreaming. It may not be pretty, but it's certainly beautiful."--Michael Herr, author of Dispatches
“[A] sharp blade of a novel, every word is weaponized as Bell stands at the portal to chthonic evil.”—Booklist
“A hybrid of mid-career Cormac McCarthy and the film collaborations of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. . . . Bell's skills as a novelist are amply in evidence.”—Kirkus
Library Journal
In his latest novel, Anisfield-Wolf Award winner and National Book Award finalist Bell composes a tale of violence and obsession. The work chronicles Mae, a seemingly normal yet wounded blackjack dealer, through empty sexual escapades in an attempt to quell the feelings for her former lover Laurel, whom she compulsively watches in 9/11 videos. She replays the images of Laurel on her knees, hands raised to the sky while the rubble of the wreckage surrounds her; Mae is thrilled by the destruction, offering readers a glimpse into a tormented mind. The journal-reminiscent style of writing coupled with the direct, detached voice of the narrator is captivating. Each page builds to a climax with another experience, such as Mae's incestuous abuse at the hands of her brother and her unremitting wanderings in the desert with her rifle, which adds to the layers of an already tattered existence. VERDICT Wonderfully capturing the essence of a troubled woman, Bell's novel will appeal to fans of John Updike's The Terrorist and readers of psychological novels.—Ashanti White, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro
Kirkus Reviews

The latest fiction from versatile and distinguished veteran Bell (Devil's Dream, 2009, etc.) provides a grim, pitiless look at the ways that violence perpetuates itself.

Mae is a middle-aged woman in desert self-exile. By day she deals blackjack in a casino; by night she roams the sere landscape above her trailer, peering out at the world through a rifle sight—a predator in semi-retirement. After 9/11, she sits rapt—and a little enraptured—before her television, watching endless replays of the crashing planes in a way that has an unmistakable erotic charge: "a plane biting into the side of a building, its teeth on the underside where the mouth of a shark is." Then, in a shot of survivors crawling from the wreckage, she spots her ex-lover Laurel—bloodied, kneeling, supplicant. Mae records the image, makes an endless loop of it and begins watching the clip obsessively. She dispatches a friend to locate Laurel, whom she hasn't seen in decades—and who, like Mae, has good reason to be unfindable. Meanwhile, Mae begins reflecting on the unbroken chain of violence that has made her the damaged, semi-feral person she is. First came five years of incestuous abuse by her brother, who taught her both to hunt and to cut herself, a habit she's carried on all these years; then her would-be escape to San Francisco, where she immediately fell first into prostitution and then into this novel's chilling version of the Manson family. The book's devotion to anatomizing and exploring violence in all its forms—it resembles at times a hybrid of mid-career Cormac McCarthy and the film collaborations of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez—can make it wobble between poignancy and near-parody—eventually it devolves into something like a body count conducted in lyric prose. Further, the echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice seem overdone. But Bell's skills as a novelist are amply in evidence, and the reader cannot quite look away.

A cold, dark novel—but a worthy one.

Michael Lindgren
With The Color of Night, Madison Smartt Bell delivers a superheated noir potboiler of unrelenting savagery that assumes proportions that are either cosmic or comic, depending on your taste for such things. The novel may make you cheer or vomit, but I guarantee you won't read anything else like it this year.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307741882
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/5/2011
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,516,777
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.91 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Madison Smartt  Bell
Madison Smartt Bell is the author of fifteen previous works of fiction, including All Souls' Rising (a National Book Award finalist), Soldier’s Joy and Anything Goes. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Goucher College.


Best known for an acclaimed trilogy of novels which chart the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803 (All Souls Rising; Master of the Crossroads; and The Stone That The Builder Refused), Madison Smartt Bell was born and raised in Nashville, TN, and educated at Princeton University and Hollins College. In addition to fiction that ranges from historical novels to short stories to dark psychological thrillers, he has written biographies (one of pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier and another of Haitian leader Toussaint L'Ouverture) and Charm City, an idiosyncratic guided tour of Baltimore, where he lives with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and at Johns Hopkins University and currently directs the Creative Writing program at Goucher College. In 1996, Bell was chosen by the British literary magazine Granta as one of the twenty Best Young American Novelists. He is also an accomplished songwriter and musician.

Good To Know

"Two of my longterm pastimes are martial arts and music. I think this item of fact should make the characters I've written who practice both more plausible. I practiced Tae Kwon Do for 20 years until my knees stopped cooperating. Since then I've been doing Tae Chi -- great for concentration, meditation, clearing the head and restoring the energy, as well as being easier on the joints for anyone over 40. I've played various fretted instruments since I was 11, most recently electric guitar. Anything Goes, my most recent book, is a novel about a year in the live of a traveling cover band. It features a few original tunes cowritten by me and Wyn Cooper."

"Since 1996 I've been importing a few paintings from the Cap Haitien area of Haiti, as a benefit for painters there who suffer from the sharp decline of tourism. and some of these paintings can be seen at"

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    1. Hometown:
      Baltimore, Maryland
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 1, 1957
    2. Place of Birth:
      Nashville, Tennessee
    1. Education:
      A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Color of Night

By Madison Smartt Bell


Copyright © 2011 Madison Smartt Bell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307741882


Until the day the towers fell, I'd long believed that all the gods were dead. For years, for decades, my head was still. Only sometimes, deep in the desert, the soughing ghost voice of O——. But still, the bell of my head was silent, swinging aimlessly over the void.


I could watch it again, as much as I wanted, since the TV kept playing it over and over like a game of Tetris no one could win. No limit to how many times I could consume, could devour those images. Again and again the rapid swelling, ripening to the bursting point, and then the fall. The buckling, crumbling, blooming outward in the great orb of ruin before it showered all its matter to the ground. Those gnatlike specks that swirled around it proved to be mortals, springing out of the flames. Wrapped in the shrouds of their screaming, they sailed down.

It didn't matter how many saw one watching, since none can know another's heart or mind. I had not known my blood could rise like that. Still, again, despite the years, the withering of my body.

Sometimes the television showed a plane biting into the side of a building, its teeth on its underside where the mouth of a shark is—then flame leaped up from the wound like the red surge from an artery. Then there were shots of living mortals on the street, wailing, raking the flesh from the bone of their faces, or some of them frozen, prostrate with awe.

So I saw Laurel for the first time again, Laurel kneeling on the sidewalk, her head thrown back, her hands stretched out with the fingers crooked, as weapons or in praise. Blood was running from the corners of her mouth, like in the old days, though not for the same reason.


Inside the casino, it never happened. Nothing there can enter in. Only the whirl of lights and the electronic burbling of machines, rattle of dice in the craps table cups, an almost inaudible whisper of cards, the friction-free hum of roulette wheels turning. Nothing is permitted to change.

It is a sort of fifth-rate hell, and I a minor demon posted to it. A succubus too indifferent to suck. I have my regulars, of course. Sometimes I even know their names. I deal them cards and they lose money. Occasionally one of them wins, of course, but not for long.

"Mae," tonight's mark says. My name's a little sinister in his faint Slavic accent. He's told me his but I've forgotten. A retired airline pilot, I think he said. Some would find him good-looking, in that square-headed way all the pilots have. Silver hair and a face burnt to wrinkly leather. It takes a long time to catch a buzz from the watered drinks they give free here, but my regular has the determination to do it.

"When you get off work, Mae? When you coming home with me?" I part my painted lips to show my pleasant teeth to him, smooth away the black wing of my hair. I am conscious of not looking up at the dark bulb in the low tiled ceiling, where the two of us are captured by a fish-eye lens. I am older than he, perhaps a lot older, but as far as I know he doesn't know it.

I show my hole card: eight to a jack. Not much of a hand, but my regular took a hit too many and he's busted.

I might have worked a double shift, meaning sixteen hours straight. Sometimes I do. I don't get tired. Even in a fifth-rate hell there is no sense of the passage of time. I don't remember anything unusual that day—if there were fewer people than we normally got, a sudden emptying of the place, illumination from outside. No I don't think there was that. It hardly matters what I recall, since no one is going to call me to witness, at least not on that point.

Probably two hours of darkness remained by the time I got into my car. It takes barely a quarter of that to drive from the casino to my dwelling. I don't listen to the radio. i don't like the chatter, and I don't like music with singing in it, and I don't like to hear guitars or strings. Maybe I listened to piano during the dark drive, Bach or Chopin, in a minor key. No voice told me what rent had been torn in the world that day. When I went into the desert, I still didn't know.


Excerpted from The Color of Night by Madison Smartt Bell Copyright © 2011 by Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Color of Night, the new novel by Madison Smartt Bell, a National Book Award finalist for All Souls’ Rising and the author of fifteen previous works of fiction.

1. The Greek concept of Até, “the almost automatic transfer of suffering from one being to another,” is introduced in the epigraph from Iris Murdoch. How is the concept of Até central to the novel’s tension? Which characters embody the “transfer of suffering”?

2. The structure of The Color of Night is a weaving of narratives from three eras in Mae’s life: her abusive childhood, her involvement with the People as a young adult, and her post-9/11 despair in Las Vegas. What effects does Bell achieve by moving seamlessly from past to present and back again?

3. Like the “electric ting of metal meeting metal” (p. 58), sex and violence co-occur throughout the novel. Which scenes feature this combination most evocatively? What is the emotional impact of these scenes?

4. What are the similarities and differences in the pleasure Mae and Laurel take in violence?

5. Why are D—— and O—— named by first initial only?

6. What is the significance of the desert landscape and its creatures, like the jackrabbit “crouched tight to the sand” (p. 40) or the coyote “fixing invisible prey with his eyes” (p. 105)?

7. What group dynamics and dark forces lead the People to enact the horrors of “higgledy-piggledy”?

8. In Greek mythology, Orpheus is considered the greatest poet and musician, as well as the inspiration for ancient mystery cults. In what ways does this novel echo the myths of Orpheus, including his descent to the underworld? Why has Bell chosen to incorporate mythological references?

9. The color of night is invoked as the “jet-black darkness” of an artery (p. 63), the “black and glittering beauty of death” (p. 153), and the “rich velvet black, as though . . . submerged in chocolate” (p. 155). What other colors make up the palette of this novel?

10. After Mae kills the FBI agent at her trailer home, we learn of several other plot developments in quick succession: the raid on the ranch and D——’s imprisonment; the brutal end for Terrell and his family; the existence of Laurel’s daughter, Ariadne; the murder of O——; and Mae’s reconnection with Laurel. Which of these culminating plot twists has the most impact?

11. How surprising is the last chapter? What do you think Mae would do if the novel continued beyond the cliff-hanger in the final lines?

12. In what ways can The Color of Night be read as social commentary? What forces in American culture are under consideration? In this light, why is Ground Zero Mae’s ultimate pilgrimage site?

13. To what extent does getting to know the characters in this novel provide new perspective on cult mentality or, in particular, the Manson Family murders of the late sixties?

14. How does Bell manage to make Mae a sympathetic character despite her failings? Which of her character traits are easiest to empathize with?

15. What does this novel suggest about how to interrupt the devastating “transfer of suffering from one being to another”? What are the sources of light in such dark emotional terrain?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2011

    At least it was short.

    This was 180 pages of rambling about that does not come together in the end. If I knew how to give it a negative star I would.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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