The Color of Night Is Dark Indeed
In an artfully choppy montage assembled from memories of things that may or may not have happened, or may have happened but not quite as remembered, Mae, the middle-aged narrator of Madison Smartt Bell’s The Color of Night unfolds a history of violence, sex, mental illness, and drugs. From childhood trauma to Manson-like murders to 9/11, she takes us on a ride in which the mileposts are all imprinted with question marks.
Mae, a blackjack dealer in one of Vegas’s less glamorous casinos, lives alone in a trailer, prowls the desert night with gun or knife in hand, drinks heavily, and remembers things best left forgotten or unimagined. In the course of relating her experiences, she qualifies some memories by questioning if that was the way things were, or an effect of the acid she dropped or pot she smoked.
As a child, Mae was abused by her older brother. The sexual abuse and torture began when she was eleven years old and continued for five years. At sixteen she left home with few belongings and continued a life marked by victimization. In Colorado and San Francisco, she was a prostitute working for brutish pimps well versed in disciplining their stables. Meeting a charismatic, philosophical man known as D----, Mae moved to his desert ranch and joined in a communal lifestyle that featured the novel’s main ingredients—sex, drugs, and violence.
While watching news coverage of 9/11, Mae sees the image of a lover from the sixties, which triggers her reminiscence. Few of Mae’s memories are happy; however her state of mind allows her to interpret them differently than most people would.
The Color of Night begins and ends tragically, on both a large and small scale. It is a short novel that is impossible to put down. The chapters don’t end with cliffhangers, but the reader is left anticipating the next memory or event. Chilling in its cold, analytical depiction of abuse and violence, The Color of Night leaves the reader reflecting uneasily, yet strangely satisfied.