cover image Soldier's Joy

Soldier's Joy

Madison Smartt Bell. Ticknor & Fields, $19.95 (465pp) ISBN 978-0-89919-836-1

Bell's impressive talents as a writer, which include endowing settings (here the landscape of rural Tennessee) with the significance of character, and a patient, compassionate probing of injured souls, are on full display in this uneven but intriguing story of a young Vietnam veteran's slow, brave resumption of civilian life. Thomas Laidlaw lives alone on his family land; he raises sheep, grows hay and vegetables, roams the countryside at night and practices his banjo. (The title is the name of a song as well as reference to a questionable legacy of the Vietnam war; as in his Zero db and Other Stories , the author's absorption with music enriches his prose). Gradually Laidlaw reestablishes his friendship with Rodney Redmon, a black man he'd grown up with and with whom he'd spent time in Vietnam. Also gradually--the operative word for most of the book, where details accumulate with the authority of a natural process--Laidlaw puts together a band, including the fiddler Adrienne, whose lover he becomes, and they begin to play at local bars. At the end, when Laidlaw, Redmon and a third reclusive vet are involved in a shoot-out with a cadre of Klansmen who attack a popular evangelist, the story disintegrates in an unexpected, if powerful, finale. For all its lack of balance, this novel's rewards far outweigh its flaws. (June)