In Anything Goes, Madison Smartt Bell's 13th work of fiction, the author follows a Tennessee country/rock cover band as it plays dives up and down the Eastern seaboard. The main character, Jesse Melungeon, capitalizes on a new lead singer's abilities and the shuffling of band personnel by slipping in his original numbers (and those of the former lead guitarist), much to the crowds' delight.
Bell provides us with a strong sense of who Jesse is: a twentysomething kid of mixed race, drinking and carousing on tour and trying to cope with a once-abusive father who reappears to attempt reconciliation. Other characters, unfortunately, drift in and out, and interesting band members are left half-developed. He does, however, capture the excitement of a band when it clicks, of the adrenaline rush stemming from the audience, and of the delight in finding music for words. After Jesse and the new lead singer, Estelle (depicted as a Dolly Partonesque rural beauty/singer), have a flirtatious encounter, Jesse thinks: "Lover was the word in my mind; I had known lots of girls, women, but hadn't called them that. Or maybe it was something else in Estelle's smile. It was like we had a pleasant secret between us--except she knew what it was and I didn't." The secret, however, is not well disguised; its revelation comes as no surprise. Even Bell's longtime readers may be disappointed by the unevenness of Anything Goes. --Michael Ferch
Here is clear evidence, in case there are any doubts, that Bell is an astoundingly versatile writer. A complete change in theme and tone from his dramatic sagas of Caribbean society (All Souls' Rising, etc.) and his fiction about domestic dislocation (The Year of Silence, etc.), Bell's newest novel captures the essence of inexperienced youth in the voice of Jesse Melungeon, a 20-year-old traveling with a bar band across the South. The novel rolls along meaningfully, from one misadventure to another, and the wisdom it imparts at its end is both hard-earned and easy to take. Jesse's band is verging on decline until Estelle, a salty girl with a strong voice, transforms its image. The band changes its face even more when three of its members drop out¢one in anger, two because of legal trouble. By the end of the novel, Jesse has become a more skilled musician and leader, and the band begins a slow climb toward national credibility. Jesse's Southern malapropisms roll off his tongue quite believably¢as they should, given that in the past, Bell has brought to life both urban youths and children from other centuries with ease. Bell is also skillful at the telling detail: one character's crooked smile, another character's hangdog look. At moments, the book goes a little too far in its character nuances¢after building a mystical aura around the band's leader, Bell has him tame a possibly poisonous snake. However, the book's parts meld magically into a poignant, driving love poem to music, the end of adolescence, and the road.
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