Ten Indians

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Overview

Mike Devlin's life has leveled out onto a predictable plateau: he and his wife and daughter live in a large, suburban home where his days are comfortable and routine; his psychiatric practice is well-established. But when he opens a Tae Kwon Do school in a black, inner-city Baltimore neighborhood, Devlin becomes the ultimate stranger: not merely by virtue of his race, but by the facts of his life, which leave him feeling ghostly and ungrounded for all the privilege and solidity they represent. An inner voice - "I...
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Overview

Mike Devlin's life has leveled out onto a predictable plateau: he and his wife and daughter live in a large, suburban home where his days are comfortable and routine; his psychiatric practice is well-established. But when he opens a Tae Kwon Do school in a black, inner-city Baltimore neighborhood, Devlin becomes the ultimate stranger: not merely by virtue of his race, but by the facts of his life, which leave him feeling ghostly and ungrounded for all the privilege and solidity they represent. An inner voice - "I cannot do nothing" - has compelled Devlin into a world whose desperation and harshness he can only guess at. But the brutality of the streets and a series of violent deaths and deadly misunderstandings shock him into seeing how limited his influence has been. In a complex, fast-paced narrative, several richly nuanced voices weave a powerful, deeply effecting story of possibility - hopeful and dangerous - between people whose connection is often defined only by its impossibility.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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."

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 obsessions—cruelty and fear as epitomized by our bizarre human invention, racism—Ten Indians acquires echoes and reflections of a deeper kind."—Los Angeles Times Book Review
David Futrelle

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

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.)
Library Journal
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.
From Barnes & Noble
From the award-winning author of All Souls' Rising comes this complex, fast-paced narrative about Mike Devlin, a psychiatrist who opens up a Tae Kwon Do school in a black inner-city neighborhood in his native Baltimore and discovers the boundaries that separate black and white and the hope that can bring them closer. "...a moving entertaining mix of hip-hop logic and soul."--Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140268461
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 11/1/1997
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 4.96 (w) x 7.72 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Madison Smartt  Bell
Madison Smartt Bell
Whether he's writing about the Haitian Revolution or a white Tae Kwon Do teacher in the Baltimore ghetto, Madison Smartt Bell can be extraordinarily flexible while maintaining his simple but poetic way with language. As the New York Times Book Review once put it, "[Bell] has an uncanny understanding of the way many people must struggle to live."

Biography

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 http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell/painting.htm."

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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:

Interviews & Essays

Before the live bn.com chat, Madison Smartt Bell agreed to answer some of our questions.

Q:  Many of your earlier books take place in the New York City area. How autobiographical were those stories, and how much was your living in New York an influence in your earlier writing?

A:  Some of the New York short stories in my first collection were fairly autobiographical. The New York novels weren't very autobiographical at all. The principal characters were all invented, though every now and then I'd write one of my friends into a small part as sort of an inside joke.

But living in New York was certainly a big influence on that part of my work. I had come from a very different situation -- a small farm in Tennessee -- to the Brooklyn ghetto, so I had an outsider's perspective on it all; everything was foreign and therefore extremely interesting, and to me it was all especially interesting as setting and subject.

Q:  How would you describe your experience as a teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop?

A:  I've actually written something about this in the first section of my textbook, Narrative Design. I had a great time at Iowa, because I like to work with good students close to publication, and Iowa does get its pick of the best. It was a pretty heavy schedule, because it's a large program, and since all the students were interesting I didn't like to turn anyone away from tutorials and whatnot, so in that sense it was kind of fatiguing, but still very enjoyable work.

Q:  Who do you think are a few of the best young writers out there today?

A:  I'm going to guess this means "younger than me" at this point, since I have slipped over 40 somehow. Pinkney Benedict, Darcey Steinke, William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Edwidge Danticat, Stewart O'Nan, Mary Gaitskill, Percival Everett (perhaps over 40, these two, I'm not so sure), Catherine Ferrell, Michael Knight -- just off the top of my head. The woods are full of them....

Q:  With martial arts playing such an important role in your latest book, Ten Indians, and your life, being a black belt yourself, what has been your reaction to the recent resurgence in popularity here in the United States of Jackie Chan and the Hong Kong martial arts flicks?

A:  Interesting question. Being parent to a small girl child, I haven't seen many movies lately. I've only seen one Jackie Chan movie, which I liked. I thought his idea of doing a comic inversion of Bruce Lee's character was nifty, though actually I prefer martial arts stories to be grim and tragic. But Chan is the most serious and accomplished martial artist to be in the movies since Bruce Lee, I think -- though one shouldn't forget Mark Salzman, certainly one of the best round-eyes in Chinese martial arts -- and also an excellent writer.

Q:  Have you read anything lately that you would strongly recommend?

A:  Sure. I like The Saskiad by Brian Hall, Already Dead by Denis Johnson, The Mercy Seat by Rilla Askew, Big Picture and Frenzy by Percival Everett, Charlie and the Children by Joanna C. Scott, Circumnavigation by Steve Lattimore, The Good Brother by Chris Offutt, Bye-Bye by Jane Ransom, This Is the Place by Peter Rock, I Saw a Man Hit His Wife by Mark Greenside...to name a few.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2000

    Ten Indians

    The book was a compelling struggel between two ethnic cultures with the charecters at a some what never ending battle. Child psychiatrist Mike Devlin trys what seems his entire life to make a difference but when the constant killings on the streets of baltimore leed him to belive that his efforts have failed.

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