Picks and Pans Review: Save Me Joe Louis

updated 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Madison Smartt Bell

One of the most gifted and prolific writers of his generation, Bell, 33, in his ninth novel, convincingly portrays urban drug dealing, prostitution and murder. He also shows an ability to evoke the resonance of rural farm life, including the small-town tensions of people who have spent too much time in one another's company.

The novel tracks two young bums named MacCrae and Charlie, who specialize in forcing affluent-looking Manhattanites to extract money from their automated teller machines. Charlie is bedeviled by a psychotic streak, while MacCrae is the more rational of the two. After leaving New York City and traveling south, they end up escalating to armed robbery and then murder.

The best aspects of Joe Louis are its powerful atmosphere, the sheer impact of Bell's prose and his ability to imbue every scene with marvelous detail. And yet Bell's latest lacks the depth of imagination and idiosyncratic spirit of such earlier works as Waiting for the End of the World and Soldier's Joy. The author's extraordinary output at such a young age has, despite his considerable talent, in this novel somewhat sapped his soul's reserves. (Harcourt Brace, $23.95)

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