Pocket Review: Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell

Devil's dream I wonder how the conversation went between Madison Smartt Bell and his publisher when he described his newest book. I imagine it went something like this:

Publisher: “Hey, Madison. So, I hear the new book is coming along, eh? Excellent. Exciting stuff. What’s it about, again?”

Bell: “It’s historical fiction about a slave-trading, Confederate officer from Tennessee.”

Publisher: “Oh.”

Silence.

Publisher: “Interesting. One of those ‘big epiphany’ books, eh?”

Bell: “Not exactly.”

Publisher: “Oh.”

As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that the only epiphany Nathan Bedford Forrest has in Devil’s Dream is when he finally realizes it’s time to throw in the towel; that the war is lost. When a bunch of diehards decide to ride to Mexico and regroup, they ask Bedford to come with them, and he tells them they’re crazy for not knowing when to quit. There’s not much else, besides the rebel cause, that Bedford doesn’t already see very clearly. The oldest child (with a twin sister) from a large, poor family, he practically works himself to death to earn and create everything he owns. As a young man, he considers vices weaknesses, and he takes great pride in never drinking a drop of liquor or tasting tobacco. Against all odds, he courts and wins the hand of a young woman much above his station in life. When he decides to enter the slave-trading business, he does so as a temporary means to an end, not as a lifelong business: He knows it’s an immoral choice, and the atmosphere is such that neighbors don’t think kindly of slave-traders. He’s presented as never being comfortable with this choice, but Nathan Bedford Forrest is not an apologetic man. The rumors of war he hears are full of dark warnings about the Union taking everything he owns from him. There is never any question about Bedford, his brothers, and his son joining to fight the Yanks, but before he leaves he offers freedom (after the war) to any of his slaves who will volunteer to fight with him, and many accept his offer.

Forrest’s interactions with his slaves (less cruel than most), his personal demons (gambling addiction, the death of a child, adultery), and his extraordinary and rapid rise from private to commanding officer (due to exceptional hand-to-hand combat and guerilla warfare skills) would make a fascinating biography, but that information is fairly well-known and readily available in plenty of online sources. This is fiction.

Devil’s Dream is Bedford’s story told as a collection of vignettes, out of sequence, and as witnessed by a free, volunteering black man. Half-starved, the mysterious Henri joins up with Bedford’s riders when they offer him some essentials. He’s evasive about his origin, keeps to himself, fights fiercely, and develops a mentor-like relationship with Matthew, Forrest’s biracial son borne of one of his slaves. At least, that’s what the reader initially believes. Just a few chapters in, when unexplainable events occur, Henri’s presence in this story becomes even more suspicious.Who and what is this man?

In an age when political correctness has risen to a stifling degree, Bell’s choice is a gutsy one on several levels. His subject—although presented in a unsentimental fashion and as a complex individual—will be a controversial one for some people, the dialogue is phonetically regional and full of era-appropriate terms and expletives, it’s not chronologically told (although an extensive timeline is offered at the back of the book), and the only real-world epiphany that occurs is the reader’s. As the book’s title insinuates, the author invokes elements of magical realism, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s not gimmicky. These scenes are beautifully rendered. They enhance the story in a sort of operatic way which is entirely organic to the fictional tale. I read somewhere that Bell is a big fan of Cormac McCarthy’s, so the inevitable comparisons probably won’t be completely unjustified. In my world, that’s not a criticism, it’s a compliment.

Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell is due to be released Nov. 3rd.

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3 Comments to Pocket Review: Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell

  1. Sean Long's Gravatar Sean Long
    October 30, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    That book is definitely calling by name. Grand job, Pat.
    I like novels based on historical figures or events that are not told in chronological order. In a way it’s like a good mystery, it makes me think, and trek backwards in the book if I need to figure something out, and a timeline is a big help. PM’s big tome of a novel, Shadow Country, based on the life of Ed Watson is like that. I’m close to finishing it for a second time, it’s that good.

  2. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    October 31, 2009 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    Mmmm, I’d read that; in fact, I will.

  3. Margarita's Gravatar Margarita
    November 1, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    ditto – goes on my wish list. Great review!

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