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Book Review: Zig Zag Wanderer

Madison Smartt Bell’s collection of stories shows that not all who wander are lost

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Madison Smartt Bell reveals his love for Captain Beefheart.

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Zig Zag Wanderer

Madison Smartt Bell

Concord

A doctor wanders junk-sick through political turmoil in Haiti, hoping to score. An office worker in the World Trade Center instinctively joins an impromptu parade begun impulsively by the cleaning crew sometime before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. A man takes up smoking again and hits a deer with his car after he and his wife decide to separate. A guitar player barely manages to help hold his sister’s family together in Hampden but loses his own girlfriend. All of these characters in Zig Zag Wanderer, Madison Smartt Bell’s new collection of short stories, have made small decisions that ultimately prove irrevocable. These wanderers have each traded some sort of security for something, but often, like a wandering journalist in another story, they “couldn’t now remember what.”

It is dangerous to make judgments about an author based on, say, the protagonist of a single novel. But when a book like Zig Zag Wanderer collects over 20 years worth of stories, it provides a pretty good sense of the author’s cast of mind. In the case of Madison Smartt Bell, it feels like spending a lifetime with a profound and profoundly generous shapeshifter.

Bell, a writing professor at Goucher, is best known for his trilogy about the Haitian revolution and a number of the stories here deal with that troubled country. The best—three that deal with Dr. Oliver, a volunteer with an opiate addiction; Charlie Chapo, a Westerner interested in losing himself in voodoo; and Magloire, a Haitian fixer—have the jagged and haunted, yet precise and measured, air of Graham Greene.

And a person saying it, a long scarecrow who’d detached himself from the niche of shade at the corner of the church and was walking toward Doctor Oliver in a juttering stride, repeating in an obsessional way the phrases the doctor now understood to mean, Foreigner! Don’t look at my documents! Doctor Oliver put his sunglasses back on but that did not make him feel any safer. He felt dizzy and sick and unsure of himself. Normally this part of town was perfectly safe, but there were always exceptional days.

But reading this book also feels like spending time with a man whose sensibility—or part of it at least—can be revealed through his record collection. The title of the book comes from a Captain Beefheart song. The music of Beefheart, the blues-based experimentalist and sometimes Zappa collaborator, appears more than once, and it is worth the price of the collection (more on that later) just to learn that Bell is a fan of the Captain. Music suffuses the book much the way it does Matt Porterfield’s recent film I Used to Be Darker—the stories are not exactly about music, even if they are about musicians, but they use songs to set certain tones and moods. “I Ain’t Blue,” a subtle ghost story about a pop songwriter, her avant-garde composer husband, and their daughter, is especially reminiscent of Darker.

But Leadbelly overwhelms all the other musical figures in the book in the magisterial story “Leadbelly in Paris,” which shifts back and forth in time and space between the great former prisoner’s first trip to play in France and that of a contemporary man who travels there to rescue a woman he once loved from a man who might, or might not, want to disfigure her face with a hammer. Structurally and thematically, it is flawless and jarring, as it must have been for Parisians to hear black-American blues, or for Leadbelly to taste cognac: simultaneously familiar and alien.

As there are bound to be in any such collection, there are a few false steps. “Small Blue Thing,” in which Poe’s Raven—actually a crow—corrects the record, isn’t exactly bad; it’s simply of a lesser caliber than the best, largely realist stories, something like an outtake nestled in the middle of a greatest-hits record. “Parallel Lines,” on the other hand, is flawed in both conception and execution, marred by Bad Sex in Fiction award-worthy lines such as “She could feel it in the bottoms of her feet, so powerfully that later, that same night, she’d let him touch and tongue her secret pearl.” Only women in stories like this have “secret pearls.” A single goofy sex description is forgivable if it is in service of something greater, but the story ends as cheesily as it begins.

Fortunately, the only other real off-note rests in the book’s gimmicky presentation rather than in the stories themselves. The press materials refer to Zig Zag as an infinite book, but it really isn’t, it just ends in the middle and forces the reader to flip it over and upside down and start reading again from what should be the back. Like Julio Cortázar’s brilliant Hopscotch, this book isn’t really harmed by the gimmick—it’s not that much of a pain in the ass—but it isn’t aided by it either.

By contrast, the other peculiar thing about the form of the book is quite interesting. It is free. Concord Free Press gives its books away, exacting from the reader the promise to give the money to someone—a charity, a homeless person, whoever (well, presumably not your local bartender or weed dealer). They also ask that you then give the book to someone else who will promise to do the same, causing a small avalanche of financial beneficence. In an era where publishing is in serious crisis, it is an interesting model. But it is interesting only in an economic way. The danger with this book is that the distribution model, on one hand, and the gee-whiz flip-around format will keep us from talking about what really is important here: rather traditional short stories about men and women making decisions that are irrevocable and, in some very real ways, that end up making the world we all live in.

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