The Barnes & Noble Review
Madison Smartt Bell is one of the most prolific young writers in America. Since his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble published in 1983, when Bell was only 25 years old he has published a total of 11 books: nine novels and two story collections. His latest book, Ten Indians, tells the story of an idealistic white tae kwon do instructor and his poor African-American students in inner-city Baltimore.
Mike Devlin is a 46-year-old child psychiatrist whose successful practice has kept him comfortably, if frustratingly, detached from life's harsher lessons and realities. Devlin is a man who wants to do something he wants to make a difference in the world. After reaching a personal crossroads, he steps into a world where poverty, violence, and despair have imprisoned the city's youth: When his tae kwon do instructor offers him the opportunity to open a tae kwon do school near a housing project in Baltimore, he accepts.
Devlin opens a gym to teach the Korean martial art and encourages his 17-year-old daughter to help out. The young black neighborhood drug dealers are eager to learn the fighting for self-protection, anticipating the day when they will ultimately be sent to prison. But the brutality of the streets and a series of violent deaths and deadly misunderstandings shock Devlin into seeing how limited his influence has really been.
In this complex, fast-paced narrative, Bell focuses on the racial lines that have divided contemporary America. Like Bell's National Book Award finalist, All Souls' Rising, an epic novelaboutHaiti's bloody 19th-century revolution, Ten Indians captures a voice that needs to be heard. As Time magazine writes, "A lot of readers of the new novel who never read Bell before are going to be digging [All Souls' Rising] out of libraries and paperback shelves."
At a time when much American fiction seems lost in self-imposed solipsism, when few writers bother to examine experience much different than their own, Madison Smartt Bell is pushing himselfùand his readers -- into vastly different worlds. In All Souls Rising, published last year and nominated for a National Book Award, Bell brought his readers into the chaos and confusion of the Haitian slave uprising of 1791. In his new novel, Ten Indians, Bell once again crosses the color line, taking us into the heart of Baltimore's inner city.
Ten Indians centers around the life of Mike Devlin, a prosperous middle-aged therapist who decides (for reasons never quite explicable to himself, or to the reader) to open a Tae Kwon Do school in one of Baltimore's worst neighborhoods. Though Devlin tries to maintain the school as a kind of "sanctuary" from the violence of the streets, he becomes drawn into one of the neighborhood's internecine drug warsùand finds his own life quickly spinning out of control.
There is much to admire here. Ten Indians is ingeniously constructed, as carefully controlled as the Tae Kwon Do rituals Bell so lovingly describes. Bell's prose, too, is taut and lean. There is, one realizes, a sort of lesson here: Bell's authorial control contrasts sharply with the random chaos of the world he describes, just as the ritualsùand the controlled violenceùof Devlin's Tae Kwon Do school contrast with the careless violence of the streets. There is a power, Bell suggests, in such self-control.
Refreshingly, though, in a world that seems oversupplied with "tough love" and undersupplied with love of the more conventional kind, this book is not simply an empty rehashing of Dangerous Minds. Bell shies away from cheap melodrama and moral grandstandingùand shows the hubris inherent in Devlin's often misguided attempts to "fix" a world he doesn't really understand. Devlin, as one character notes to herself, doesn't mean any harmùbut his actions cause harm nonetheless. Good intentions, the book makes clear, "[a]in't no excuse and don't make no difference."
It's a lesson Bell would do well to ponder himself. Ten Indians is a supremely well-intentioned book, but ultimately a disappointing oneùa book that is too well-behaved for its own good. Ten Indians is full of villainy, but has no real villains; it's a battle of the blands. All of Bell's characters have souls; they just don't have much life to them. You can't hate the book, and you can't hate Bell for trying. You can only wish he had challenged himself, and his readers, a little bit more. -- Salon
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Shootings, kidnappings, hit-and-run, routine and inventive stabbings, crack overdose, fist-and-foot-fights, child neglect and abuse, a mounting toll of murder; in Ten Indians, the action unrolls at a thriller pace. Bell has a compelling, gut-gripping way with the violent incident...he builds his tightly structured narrative primarily, and most convincingly, with such wrenchingly realized moments.... Within the contexts of Bell's authentic obsessionscruelty and fear as epitomized by our bizarre human invention, racismTen Indians acquires echoes and reflections of a deeper kind."Los Angeles Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With his 11th work of fiction in 14 years, Bell, whose last novel, All Soul's Rising, was a finalist for the National Book Award, is threatening to become the Joyce Carol Oates of his generation: a prolific writer who, while always competent, is only intermittently inspired. His latest novel is about Mike Devlin, a middle-aged white child-therapist who, for somewhat murky reasons, decides to open a Tae Kwon Do school in the black projects of inner-city Baltimore. Unbeknownst to him, Devlin's school attracts members of two drug gangs increasingly caught up in a murderous rivalry. Meanwhile, the singularly oblivious Devlin lets his daughter, Michelle, come down to the projects to train; she soon launches an affair with the leader of one of the gangs. The book alternates between third-person narrative for sections focusing on Devlin and his family, and first-person narratives told from the perspectives of various black youths. Despite these latter bursts of ventriloquism, the novel lacks the gritty verisimilitude of, say, Richard Price's Clockers. Devlin's motivation -- she has a vague desire to participate in the world and soften some of its rougher edges -- remain personally unclear, if admirable in the abstract. Nevertheless, Bell is a natural storyteller, and the book does take on a momentum and pathos as the unnecessary death toll exacted by life on the street rises and as Devlin learns -- the hard way -- how large the distance between worlds really is. (Nov.)
Bell, recently identified by Granta as one of the 20 best young American novelists, here shows why. Multiple narrators cast different shadows on the story of Mike Devlin, a white, middle-class psychologist whose life is in crisis (whether he knows it or not), who sets up a Tae Kwan Do academy in a black, inner-city neighborhood (in crisis of its own) in Baltimore. The concept of "getting involved" applies in a metaphysical as well as practical sense. "Boundary crossing" also takes on multiple meanings, especially as Michelle, Devlin's teenage daughter, becomes increasingly interested in the academy and the neighborhood. Deliberately understated, the book turns the nice trick of holding the reader despite the fact that the outcome is forecast at the beginning. Readers introduced to Bell with the highly praised All Souls' Rising (LJ 10/1/95), a historical novel of Haitian independence, will find Ten Indians quite different. But the martial arts theme and inner-city setting are in fact much more typical of his oeuvre. Highly recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/76.]Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.