cover image Save Me, Joe Louis

Save Me, Joe Louis

Madison Smartt Bell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt P, $23.95 (351pp) ISBN 978-0-15-179432-4

Like a steel bearing in a pinball machine, the protagonist of Bell's new novel bounces wildly from one crime to another. Only at the end of his run, overcoming his instinct to react to circumstances rather than create them, does he seem willing to choose his own moral path. AWOL from the service and living in a New York City tenement, Macrae teams up with Charlie to rob people by forcing them to withdraw money from bank machines. As the crimes and violence escalate, they are joined by Porter, a black ex-con, in Baltimore. A botched robbery then sends them to Tennessee, where they live with Macrae's bitter blind father near Nashville and encounter Lacy, Macrae's childhood girlfriend. Another robbery results in four brutal killings and a high-speed escape to the Carolina shore. ``Ain't nobody cares that much what you do,'' says Charlie, who uses that aphorism for license. As Macrae gradually discerns the difference between Charlie's lack of conscience and his own passivity, we come to care deeply for him. Marred by some slow spots, some heavy-handed metaphors and too many coincidences, this meticulously observed story nevertheless grips us with its lucid prose, its keen psychological insights and the author's respect for his troubled characters. Combining the lowlife urban setting and the hardscrabble rural mountain life that feature in his earlier works, Bell ( Doctor Sleep ; Soldier's Joy ) remains one of our most talented novelists. (May)