The "ensemble" to which Madison Smartt Bell's title refers consists of five men, none of them in any particular way likeable, who peddle dope in Washington Square, the garden spot of New York's Greenwich Village. Their leader is "known to my colleagues and business acquaintances as Johnny B. Goode"; he is Italian, but he has acquired the nickname, he says, "because I love black people and their music and money, and because I do be good." As for his four henchmen, in the words of a friend:
"... All I'm saying is he's got some new friends now, and not the kind you'd expect. Got a Muslim and a Puerto Rican witch doctor and gets along with both of them like coffee and cream. Couple of other guys too that you wouldn't expect to see at the same party, and all of them rolling along together like they were raised in the same cradle. And if he wants them to do something, why, there's never a question."
The speaker is a fellow named Porco Miserio, he is not exactly a member of the ensemble, but a local character who occasionally encounters its members. He is an alcoholic, a self-destructive saxophone player -- "a little rat of a horn player that drinks too much and talks too much." But his talk is deceptive; beneath his barely coherent ramblings lurks a wino philosopher whose disquisitions set forth the novel's themes.
As the novel opens, Porco has been presented a stone "as black as the guts of the universe" by a dying Indian; it is said to be "The Storytelling Stone," but the first use to which he puts it is as a weapon to knock out a member of the ensemble named Yusuf Ali, a large black man whose conversion to the Muslim faith has quieted his more violent instincts. This attack sets off a chain of events and flashbacks that leads, in the end, to Porco's declaration of what appears to be the novel's central theme.
"... no matter what you say or think or do, no matter how sweetly your luck may beguile you, you will sometimes or often wake up in the night in the chills and fever of the sudden knowledge that you know nothing, you understand nothing, and if you did you could never speak of it. Therefore you are alone, and you will always be alone. And despite whatever devices your crawling intelligence may contrive, whatever gods you may throw up in front of yourself, they or the great wide world itself will never say anything more to you than this -- I AM THAT I AM. And that's it, that's the bottom line. How do you like it?"
Not much, unfortunately. It's difficult to see the point of "The Washington Square Ensemble." Apart from a certain amount of rather clumsy religious allegory (one may, if one is inclined toward that sort of thing, see Johnny and his runners as Jesus and his disciples), there is no discernible shape or meaning to the book. To be sure, Bell provides a guided tour of the seediest parts of the Village and the surrounding territory, and he permits his characters to participate in a considerable variety of interesting activities: not merely dope peddling, but also numbers running, assault, auto theft and murder. He takes side journeys (in flashbacks) to the uprising at Attica and to several outposts of the Mafia.
But none of this makes a coherent whole. The problem is not that Bell tells his story through the voices of several narrators; this, in fact, is one of the book's stronger points, as he does manage to make those voices distinct. Rather, it is that there is no narrative movement to "The Washington Square Ensemble." For a novel populated with dangerous and checkered characters, surprisingly little actually happens -- and most of what's mildly interesting happens in flashbacks. Toward the end there are several excitements and epiphanies, but none is worth the effort of getting there.
Bell's portrait of life as it's lived by his characters may well be an accurate one, and his depiction of the Village doubtless has verisimilitude, but at the end of his story it's difficult to figure why he bothered to tell it -- much less dress it up in enough religious symbolism to strain the patience of a monk. Bell appears to be a writer of some talent, but little of it is realized in "The Washington Square Ensemble."