Madison Smartt Bell, a past finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, lays out a gorgeous, desert dreamscape full of bad men and lost souls in his latest novel, Behind the Moon.
His protagonist, Julie, skips school to go on a camping trip in the desert with Karyn, her best friend, Sonny, Marko, and Jamal. Almost right away Julie feels uneasy about the small number of tents versus the number of people camping out but brushes away her concerns. After all, she’s with her best friend, and Jamal seems sweet. As night falls across the desert, she quickly finds herself in trouble when it turns out Marko is making amateur porn films and plans on making her and Karyn stars. Dosed on Molly, she runs for the cliffs surrounding their campsite while Jamal tries to fend off Marko and Sonny.
Trying to hide, Julie falls and enters into a different world, her dreams colored by the paintings adorning the cave where she fell. Now, Julie’s in a comatose state that the doctors can’t explain and Jamal is under threat from both Marko and the local bad man, an Indian named Ultimo.
Meanwhile, Marissa, Julie’s birth mother, has a vision of a falling star and knows the daughter she gave up years ago is in trouble. Drawn to her daughter’s side, and mourning the loss of her spiritual advisor and love interest, Marissa embarks on a journey to find out what happened to her daughter. Displaced and unsure who to trust, she struggles to save both her daughter’s body and her soul.
Bell throws no punches, disorienting you from the very beginning by dropping you first thing into the shapeless void of Julie’s dreams, leaving you without a firm grasp of place or time, before quickly moving into the main action of the story. His prose is lyrical and compelling, showcasing his talent as a wordsmith. The story’s nonlinear, often circular, narrative lends a hallucinogenic feel to the journey, with Bell acting as a sure-footed guide. The reader is often left unmoored, unsure of what’s real and what’s imagined, allowing the reader to experience the disorientation of Julie’s, and later Marissa’s, trek through a web of ancient dreams.
Unlike many books written in an experimental format, Bell accomplishes something spectacular in that the highly stylized concept enhances the book’s readability instead of detracting from it. The short, choppy chapters and quick-shifting point of view make for a quick, engaging read.
There is a lot to love about this book, despite a few drawbacks. Some of the characters come across underdeveloped, as ephemeral as the shades that haunt Julie’s comatose state, and there are times when Julie’s inner journey slows the narrative and detracts from Marissa’s far more interesting conflict. Bell’s use of native motifs and the native spirit quest theme is on the verge of stereotype, while some of the imagery, such as the cave/birth canal scene, used un-ironically, comes perilously close to clichéd.
Nevertheless, Bell manages to pull off an interesting read that both entertains and illuminates. He does a great job of keeping the reader guessing, and despite the thinness of some characters, there are others you can genuinely care about. Think Clan of the Cave Bear meets Wally Lamb re-writing Breaking Bad. If you’re seeking a solid, straight forward narrative this is probably not the book for you, but fans of experimental format and shifting narratives will dig Bell’s innovative style and soaring prose.