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Madison Smartt Bell: Waiting for the End of the World

I have a certain fondness for this novel, as it features one of my favourite subjects, spontaneous combustion. This novel involves our apparently worst nightmare before it became our worst nightmare, namely a terrorist attack in New York involving a nuclear bomb though, as with other terrorist attacks, the Muslims are not to blame. This has many of Bell’s favorite themes – strange, apocalyptic religions, gratuitous violence, seriously troubled people, a fast pace but an occasional touch of human kindness from the most unlikely of characters.

Bell gives us a portrait of each of the conspirators. The main one (but not the leader) is Clarence Dmitri Larkin, born on April Fool’s Day. He seems to be a talented pianist and is enrolled in the Juilliard but then drops out, having got interested in photography and goes to the Rhode Island School of Design but, as his photos become stranger, he does not graduate. He works for Dr. Leveaux, a doctor at Bellevue Hospital, photographing the abused and disfigured. He became an alcoholic but he does show his tender side when he is asked to photograph a child who has been disfigured by devil worshippers and takes the child to his friend Arkady Zeraschev to help cure him from his injuries. But Larkin (as he now styles himself) is also well versed in visionary texts and concocts an apocalyptic vision, which involves detonating a nuclear bomb under Manhattan.

The other conspirators also have troubled histories. Charles Mercer carries cocaine and is caught and tortured in a Mexican prison. David Hutton is a Vietnam vet with post traumatic stress disorder. Ruben Carrera is a petty crook and junkie. The leader is Simon Rohnstock who was born to a very rich father but, when Simon was four, his mother left for Europe, taking Simon with her. He went to Harvard, became interested in politics but then went to Paris in 1968 to study film. When the student revolt broke out, Simon was involved. By the time he was back in New York, he was ready for action. Bell has given us detailed portraits of the five conspirators and then proceeds to give us an account of their plot. Which all ends in spontaneous combustion. As with his other novels, Bell tells a fascinating story at a fast pace. It is not always pretty but Bell is not dealing with pretty but the seamy side of the world and he certainly shows us that.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Ticknor & Fields