cover image ANYTHING GOES


Madison Smartt Bell, . . Pantheon, $24 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42125-9

Here is clear evidence, in case there are any doubts, that Bell is an astoundingly versatile writer. A complete change in theme and tone from his dramatic sagas of Caribbean society (All Souls' Rising, etc.) and his fiction about domestic dislocation (The Year of Silence, etc.), Bell's newest novel captures the essence of inexperienced youth in the voice of Jesse Melungeon, a 20-year-old traveling with a bar band across the South. The novel rolls along meaningfully, from one misadventure to another, and the wisdom it imparts at its end is both hard-earned and easy to take. Jesse's band is verging on decline until Estelle, a salty girl with a strong voice, transforms its image. The band changes its face even more when three of its members drop out—one in anger, two because of legal trouble. By the end of the novel, Jesse has become a more skilled musician and leader, and the band begins a slow climb toward national credibility. Jesse's Southern malapropisms roll off his tongue quite believably—as they should, given that in the past, Bell has brought to life both urban youths and children from other centuries with ease. Bell is also skillful at the telling detail: one character's crooked smile, another character's hangdog look. At moments, the book goes a little too far in its character nuances—after building a mystical aura around the band's leader, Bell has him tame a possibly poisonous snake. However, the book's parts meld magically into a poignant, driving love poem to music, the end of adolescence, and the road. (July 1)

FYI:Many of the lyrics credited to fictional characters in this book were written by Wyn Cooper to music by Bell himself. They can be heard on the latter's Web site, listed in the acknowledgments.