Russell Banks Essay - Critical Essays

Russell Banks Short Fiction Analysis

Russell Banks’s work is largely autobiographical, growing out of the chaos of his childhood: the shouting and hitting, physical and emotional abuse inflicted on the family by an alcoholic father, who abandoned them in 1953. Being forced at age twelve to assume the role of the man in the family and always living on the edge of poverty greatly influenced Banks’s worldview and consequently his writing. Banks’s struggle to understand the tight hold that the past has on the present and the future led him to create a world in which people come face to face with similar dilemmas. Banks’s characters struggle to get out from under, to free themselves from the tethers of race, class, and gender. He writes of working people, those who by virtue of social status are always apart, marginalized, often desperate, inarticulate, silenced by circumstances. He aims to be their voice, to give expression to their pain, their aspirations, their angsts. Their emotional makeup can be as complex as those more favored by birth or power. In an interview in The New York Times Book Review, Banks noted thatpart of the challenge is uncovering the resiliency of that kind of life, and part is in demonstrating that even the quietest lives can be as complex and rich, as joyous, conflicted and anguished, as other seemingly more dramatic lives.

Banks’s main strength, besides his graceful style, keen powers of observation, intelligence, and humanity, is his ability to write feelingly of often unlovable people. He never condescends or belittles. He does not judge. He always attempts to show, rather than tell, why a person is as he or she is, and it is in the telling that Banks is able to understand himself and exorcize the devils of his own past. He did not necessarily set out on self-discovery, but learned, through writing, who he was and what he thought. He grew to understand himself through understanding the elements of his past that shaped him.

Banks is sometimes grouped with Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus as writers in a “Trailer-Park Fiction” genre, which, according to critic Denis M. Hennessy,examine[s] American working-class people living their lives one step up from the lowest rung on the socioeconomic ladder and doing battle every day with the despair that comes from violence, alcohol, and self-destructive relationships.

Some of Banks’s plots and themes are derivative, with heavy borrowings from Mark Twain and E. L. Doctorow, but his unique touch sets them apart. Banks is both a chronicler and a critic of contemporary society.

Influenced by James Baldwin, who said that the true story about race would have to be “written from the point of view of a member of a lynch mob,” Banks attempts to elicit an understanding of the perpetrators as well as of the victims of crimes, cruelties, and injustices. He believes that understanding a situation depends on knowing how the players who created it were created themselves. His characters all search for transformation, for something that will redeem them, lift them above their present circumstances. Their searches lead them to greater desolation and very seldom to contentment. The lower echelon is forever pitted against and at the mercy of the middle class. Hennessy has called Banks’s short fiction the “testing ground of his most innovative ideas and techniques.” The major themes revolve around disharmony, both in the family and in society, and the eternal search for the lost family. Banks admits that much of his fiction centers on “Russell Banks searching for his father. I spent a great deal of my youth running away from him and obsessively returning to him.”

Searching for Survivors

Banks’s first collection combines reality and fantasy, with the fourteen stories divided into three general groups: five moral and political parables, a trilogy of stories that feature Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, and six substantially autobiographical tales set in New England. Banks’s experiments with narrative style, structure, and point of view met with mixed response. He was credited for trying but faulted for lacking a unifying thread. Critic Robert Niemi says of the parables that if thetheme is the modern divorce between cognition and feeling [they] stylistically enact that schism with a vengeance almost all [being] solemn in tone, and written in a detached, clinically descriptive style that tends toward the cryptic.

Each story ends on a note of either defeat or disillusionment. Survival is highly unlikely. The American Dream has failed.

The opening tale deals with a man driving along the Henry Hudson Parkway, thinking about his childhood friend’s car, a Hudson, and about the explorer, who was set adrift in 1611 in the waters that eventually bore his name. The narrator imagines going to the shores of Hudson Bay to look for evidence of the explorer’s fate. Therein is an attempt to understand the past. Banks often deals withthe Old World and the early exploration of North America, and he shows the connections between those who set out from their comfortable but unjust homelands to settle the unknown, and modern Americans who have been shunted out of their safe cocoons of fixed values and family security into the relativistic reality of the latter half of the twentieth century.

In a story confirming Thomas Wolfe’s thesis that one “can’t go home again,” a young man returns from adventures with guerrilla leader Che Guevara, only to find his hometown irrevocably changed and himself so different that no one recognizes him. In another story, “With Che at Kitty Hawk,” a newly divorced woman and her two daughters visit the Wright Brothers Memorial. An almost-happy ending has the woman feeling somewhat liberated after being trapped in marriage, but that optimism is fleeting. In yet another, “Blizzard,” Banks shifts the narrator, first having him be omniscient, then having him speak through a man who is losing touch with reality, succumbing to guilt and bleak wintery surroundings.

The New World

Banks’s search for a comfortable voice caused him to continue to experiment with narrative voice, switching from first-to second-person, and sometimes third-, at times unsettling readers and critics who deemed his shifts haphazard rather than intentional. Never fully at ease with an omniscient, all-knowing narrator, yet not wanting his...

(The entire section is 2631 words.)