Cell at Eastern State

Cell at Eastern State

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Books That Teach - Save Me, Joe Louis

I thought it would be fun to put up short entries about the books that I loved and that taught me something about writing. Let me know what you think, and tell me about the books that were important to your development as a writer.

I thought I'd start with Madison Smartt Bell's quiet gem, Save Me Joe Louis. The book came out in 1994, and follows main characters Macrae and Charlie as they meet in Manhattan (cementing their new friendship within moments by combining for a strongarm robbery) and drift around New York City and then down toward Macrae's southern home, committing a string of increasingly desperate and violent robberies.

"Macrae watched the girl. Gradually her arm settled to her side from the position in the air where it had been left. Her mouth was very small and cherry red and the lips were slightly parted. She was tipped forward onto the balls of her feet, quick frozen there. You look like I feel, Macrae said to himself. Charlie was thumbing the boy's wallet open.
     "Twenty bucks?" he said. He held the wallet up by one corner, like a rotten dead thing, and a plastic cardcarrier unfolded from it and hung.
     "Keep those legs apart," Charlie said. "Put your weight on that rail, son." He twisted to turn the dangle of cards under the streetlight. "New Jersey license," he said. "Don't you bring more money when you come to Manhattan?"
     The boy didn't answer. He kept his face turned away from the light."

This sequence, from the first pages of the book and reflecting Macrae's point of view of events, tells you a lot about the novel, its characters and Bell's power as a writer. With just a few lines, he's telling who Macrae is, who Charlie is, and about the humiliation and terror of the experience both of being robbed by strangers in a Manhattan park and of becoming someone who would be caught up in perpetrating that robbery. Much of what follows in the novel is about Macrae's experience and from his point of view, as he allows himself to go along with violent, restless Charlie as the crimes escalate, until he comes to a final decision point about his fate and essential character.

In the small scene above, Bell shows Macrae's hold on his own humanity even as he participates in the humiliating ritual of stealing from the young couple. He notices the small details of their body language and empathizes with their discomfort. "You look like I feel."

The wallet becomes a "rotten dead thing" in Charlie's hands. He's enjoying the temporary control and power he holds, in mastering the situation and overpowering the couple so that the boy, emasculated, can only look away. Macrae's ambivalence and Charlie's need for control and power in this scene tell you a lot about how the rest of the novel is going to play out.

This was powerful, important stuff to me as a writer. Bell showed me a new kind of writing, in which desperate, violent but fully-realized and fully-human characters interacted in authentic ways and with the kind of stakes at risk that really matter. Not the money they would seem to be fighting over, but the subtle expressions of power, connection, love and regret that are the actual stuff of living. And all of it excecuted with such subtlety that its themes inform and deepen the action rather than distract from its power.


  1. I've never read this, but from what you've posted here, I want to read more.
    For me, Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut defined me early on with the simplicity of the language and how easily he could express such complex ideas in such a stripped down fashion.

  2. Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes talking writing with me knows my favorite writer and writing role model is Philip Roth. (Hi, Philip! Love you!) I don't write like him and wouldn't (shouldn't?) try, but I find his voice, insight, and precision incredibly inspiring. If you haven't read him, I suggest American Pastoral as a good starting point.