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Originally published Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

'The Color of Night': Madison Smartt Bell's portrait of a dark and dangerous America

Madison Smartt Bell's novel "The Color of Night" is a dark portrait of violence in the U.S., told through the story of Mae, a Nevada blackjack casino dealer with a traumatic past.

The Associated Press

'The Color of Night'

by Madison Smartt Bell

Vintage, 224 pp., $15

In his latest novel, "The Color of Night," Madison Smartt Bell takes a dark look at violence in the United States and its effect on the country, the culture and individuals.

His narrator, Mae, is a blackjack dealer in a Nevada casino. Mae, who is distant from her co-workers and friendless, spends her nights wandering the desert behind her trailer, rifle in hand and malevolent memories and persistent questions filling her mind.

When she isn't in the desert, Mae is obsessively watching recorded footage of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which shows her old friend and lover, Laurel, surviving the carnage.

The shock of seeing Laurel sends Mae down a twisted and dangerous memory lane, one that is filled with pain, torture, rape and life as part of the Manson family.

From her horrendous childhood, with what she calls the "Mom Thing" and an older brother who schooled her in the ways of pain, Mae was more than ready when Charles Manson came calling. Bell paints Mae's dangerous days in the 1960s when "The People" provided her with a sense of family and of fitting in.

Mae finds the pictures of 9/11 thrilling, sparking the old sense of anarchy she once lived with. But when she finally contacts Laurel, she finds that her old flame is now a sedate, middle-aged woman who has no desire to renew old ties. Mae has trouble believing the changes in Laurel, who seems to have drifted so far from their violent past.

In his acknowledgments, Bell says he has always said his work "is dictated to me by daemons. People probably think that's a figure of speech, maybe this book will prove it literal."

Certainly Bell takes the reader on a twisted journey, but Mae is both believable and fascinating — and the trip is thrilling.

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