cover image Ten Indians

Ten Indians

Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon Books, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44246-2

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 motivations--he 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.)