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Madison Smartt Bell: The Washington Square Ensemble

Bell’s first novel starts off the way he meant to continue – with stories of junkies, prostitutes and similar people, in this case hovering around New York’s Washington Square. The main character is a drug dealer wittily called Johnny B. Goode (his real name is Enrico Spaghetti or something like that) but he uses the pseudonym Johnny B. Goode because he loves black people and their music and money but also because when the drugs police come looking for Johnny B. Goode they are not looking for a white Italian. He has four employees to sell his drugs – Holy Mother from his old neighbourhood and a former Mafia man, Santa Barbara, a Puerto Rican interested in voodoo, Yusuf Ali, a large black Muslim, and Carlo from Santo Domingo. Porco Miserio, who plays sax, comes later. As in some of his later works, we have each man telling his own story, where he came from and how he ended up working for Johnny. As is usual in Bell’s novels, all have a tale of woe to tell, as victims of brutality, deprivation and violence. And, as with many of his later characters, they are looking for God in their own, often unique, way. Violence, of course, occurs with a group of Rastafarians and music and a sort of camaraderie amongst the group which sort of carries them through but the whole book sets the themes for Bell’s later novels.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Viking