At 33, Madison Smartt Bell has published six novels and two volumes of stories, and critics are already offering him choice lots on Mount Parnassus. It’s easy to imagine him 20 years from now, a pillar of the literary establishment and a fixture at international writers’ conferences. Yet I like to think that, deep inside, Bell will always be a bum on the street. His work has a Dostoyevskian penchant for people on the margin and over the edge. Instead of romanticizing them, as some comfortable writers have been known to do, he inhabits them and carefully unpacks their morally ambiguous baggage. In his recent collection, Barking Man and Other Stories, for instance, Bell stepped into the decomposing shoes of drug addicts, derelicts, a woman who hears demons and commits murder, and a man who undergoes a psychic metamorphosis into a dog.
Doctor Sleep has for its hero and narrator another man over the edge — over several edges. Adrian Strother, an American in seediest London, has left behind five years of heroin addiction, but now he can’t sleep, even though he is, by trade, someone who puts people to sleep — a therapeutic hypnotist. Bizarre patients and insomnia-induced hallucinations walk into his life just as his girlfriend, feeling neglected and generally invisible, walks out of it. Two other Americans — a fellow ex-addict-turned-born-again-Christian, and a woman to whom Adrian is vaguely married — arrive in London to thicken the plot, as if that’s what it needed. It soon has the consistency of blood pudding, with the addition of a child murderer, two thugs with punk haircuts who assault Adrian, a drug tycoon who threatens him with permanent residence at the bottom of the Thames, a shady Dutchman from a shadowy international organization, and a large snake.
Not a quiet life, but Adrian still finds time for immersion in the arcane cosmic symbolism of Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance philosopher who, before being burned alive by the Inquisition, dabbled in magic and mystical pantheism. Bruno’s intriguing theory was that everything in the universe is alive. I wish I could say the same about this novel. Bell seems to work best in short forms and set pieces — like the hypnotism scene that opens this book. Too much of the rest reads like a series of inert writing workshop exercises. The plot is contrived, and the handful of suspense it generates is dissipated in lame revelations and loose ends. The pleasures are mostly incidental — the passages on Bruno, and a spirited horsewhipping of ”muttonhead Freud” for having tried to reduce human life to mere libido-driven mechanism. But the frantic plot is accompanied by clanking and grinding noises that tend to drown out the enchanting incidental music. C