Banks, Russell (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Russell Banks 1940-
American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Banks's career through 2001. See also Russell Banks Short Story Criticism.
Banks is best known as a naturalistic writer whose works address the psychological effects of poverty, child abuse, and alcoholism on working-class individuals. He has earned praise for his candid prose and trenchant evocations of the anxiety and hopelessness associated with life in economically depressed regions of the United States. Attempting to circumvent what he considers the artifice and didacticism of omniscient narration, Banks employs narrators who speak directly and intimately to the reader. Primarily known for his novels Continental Drift (1985) and The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Banks has developed a firm literary reputation for his vivid ruminations on the insidious effects of alcoholism, the tenuous relationships between fathers and sons, the changing patterns of community life, and how racism affects modern American identity.
Banks was born on March 28, 1940, in Newton, Massachusetts, the first of four children to Earl and Florence Banks. His father was a plumber who left school at sixteen to help support his family during the Great Depression. In 1952, when Banks was twelve, his father took up with a girlfriend in Florida, abandoning the family. His mother found work as a bookkeeper, and Banks assumed his absent father's role as male head of household. A strong student throughout his life, Banks obtained a full scholarship to Colgate College in 1958, but left after only eight weeks. After spending several months at home, Banks decided to travel to Cuba to join Fidel Castro's revolution against the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar. However, his funds only took him as far as St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived in a trailer park, worked a variety of odd jobs, and began writing poetry and short fiction. In August 1963 Banks attended the Breadloaf Writers' Conference near Middlebury, Vermont, where he worked under the tutelage of the noted proletarian writer Nelson Algren. Banks left Florida in the mid-1960s and traveled to the Yucatán and Jamaica, experiences he would later incorporate into several of his works. Deciding to continue his education, Banks enrolled at the University of North Carolina, earning a B.A. in English in 1967. During this period, Banks and William Matthews cofounded Lillabulero Press, a publishing group devoted to releasing poetry chapbooks and a literary magazine called Lillabulero. Contributors to Lillabulero included Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Nelson Algren, Malcolm Cowley, Diane Wakoski, Margaret Randall, and Andre Codrescu. After graduating, Banks began teaching literature at such institutions as Emerson College, the University of New Hampshire, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Princeton University, among others. Two of Banks's novels—The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction (1989)—were both adapted into award-winning films in 1997, by directors Atom Egoyan and Paul Schrader, respectively. Banks has received numerous awards for his body of work, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1976, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1982 for The Book of Jamaica (1980), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for work of distinction in 1986, and the John Dos Passos Award in 1986. He was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter (1998).
Banks began his literary career as a poet, publishing early selections of his verse in 15 Poems (1967), Waiting to Freeze (1969), and Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter (1974). In his first prose works, Banks experimented with a variety of literary forms and techniques, revealing a talent for blending fantasy into realistically detailed stories. His first novel, Family Life (1975), is constructed as a fable and satirizes conventional family histories by replacing the traditional roles of father, mother, and son with those of king, queen, and prince. In Hamilton Stark (1978), whose protagonist is alternately presented as a violent alcoholic and as a benevolent man, Banks parodies such literary genres as the mystery, the memoir, and the biography. His short story collections Searching for Survivors (1975) and The New World: Tales (1978) subtly merge extraordinary elements with aspects of everyday life. For example, in the story “The Conversion” from The New World, Banks introduces a vision of Jesus Christ into his portrait of an emotionally confused adolescent. The Relation of My Imprisonment (1983) also evidences Banks's penchant for fictional experimentation. The novel, in which a prisoner publicly recants his sins against God and the religious community, is an allegorical tale modeled after a seventeenth-century literary genre popular among the Puritans known as the “Relation.”
In the early 1980s, Banks began to focus on social problems, including poverty and racial and class discrimination, in his fiction. The Book of Jamaica chronicles the experiences of a New Hampshire college professor who travels to Jamaica to write a novel and is appalled at the destitution of the country's native inhabitants. The professor eventually befriends the Maroons, descendants of renegade African slaves who fight to preserve their way of life. In the short story collection Trailerpark (1981), a work comprised of thirteen interrelated stories, Banks examines how the poor, uneducated residents of a trailer park community in New Hampshire contend with alcoholism, greed, and loneliness. Banks's fifth novel, Continental Drift, was the first of his works to attain critical and commercial success. Regarded as one of Banks's most naturalistic novels, the plot of Continental Drift shifts between Bob Dubois, a furnace repairman from New Hampshire, and Vanise Dorinville, a Haitian woman who suffers numerous abuses as she flees her country for the United States. After separately attempting to better their lives, Bob and Vanise accidentally meet in a squalid region of Southern Florida where they are both manipulated and betrayed. In the short fiction collection, Success Stories (1986), Banks reveals the anxiety and despair in a small, working-class town. In one story, a twelve-year-old boy desperately writes letters to a television program called Queen for a Day, hoping to secure a place on the show for his mother, who has been emotionally and physically mistreated by the boy's father. The novel Affliction, whose protagonist is a middle-aged man who was abused as a child, addresses the profound influence of childhood memories on adult life, the cyclical nature of familial violence, and the devastating effects of alcoholism.
Banks further explores how people respond to hardships in his seventh novel, The Sweet Hereafter. This work differs, however, from his earlier novels in that it delves into the motivations and behaviors of an entire community. Tracing a small town's reaction to a school bus accident in which fourteen children are killed and many others are severely injured, The Sweet Hereafter examines the dynamics of grief, guilt, resentment, and recovery. In Rule of the Bone (1995), Banks chronicles the adventures of a fourteen-year-old boy from upstate New York named Chappie who runs away from his abusive, dysfunctional family and falls in with a gang of bikers. Later, Chappie travels with a gentle Rastafarian named I-Man to live on a Jamaican commune, renaming himself “Bone.” Critics have frequently compared Banks's narrative style in Rule of the Bone to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Banks presents an imaginative retelling of the legend of the radical abolitionist John Brown and his siege on Harper's Ferry in Cloudsplitter. Told from the point-of-view of John's surviving son, Owen, the text explores the deleterious effects of slavery on the United States and its territories and John Brown's religious fervor and moral righteousness towards his family and community. In 2000 Banks published The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks, a comprehensive collection of his short fiction throughout his career.
Critics have praised Banks's realistic investigations into the oppression, alienation, and hopelessness often associated with modern American life. Moreover, reviewers have applauded his insightful and poignant depictions of working-class people struggling to overcome poverty, alcoholism, spiritual isolation, self-destructive relationships, and overwhelming despair. His fiction has been lauded for its lyrical prose, well-defined characters, powerful voice, and narrative techniques. For example, commentators have argued that by introducing four separate narrators in The Sweet Hereafter, Banks is able to pervasively and poignantly depict the complex and conflicting feelings that arise in the aftermath of tragedy. However, Rule of the Bone has received a mixed assessment from readers, with some faulting the implausibility of the plot and Banks's lackluster attempt to construct a modern retelling of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The autobiographical aspects of Banks's work have also attracted critical interest, inspiring several reviewers to posit that his novels and short stories function as attempts to process the traumas of his youth. Scholars have variously compared Banks's fiction to the works of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus. Christine Benvenuto has commented that, “Banks writes with an intensely focused empathy and a compassionate sense of humor that help to keep readers, if not his characters, afloat through the misadventures and outright tragedies of his books.”
15 Poems [with William Matthews and Newton Smith] (poetry) 1967
30/6 (poetry) 1969
Waiting to Freeze (poetry) 1969
Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter (poetry) 1974
Family Life (novel) 1975
Searching for Survivors (short stories) 1975
The New World: Tales (short stories) 1978
Hamilton Stark (novel) 1978
The Book of Jamaica (novel) 1980
Trailerpark (short stories) 1981
The Relation of My Imprisonment (novel) 1983
Continental Drift (novel) 1985
Success Stories (short stories) 1986
Affliction (novel) 1989
Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness [editor; with Michael Ondaatje and David Young] (nonfiction) 1989
The Sweet Hereafter (novel) 1991
Rule of the Bone (novel) 1995
Cloudsplitter (novel) 1998
The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks (short stories) 2000
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SOURCE: Mosher, Howard Frank. “The Lost Children.” Washington Post Book World 21, no. 36 (8 September 1991): 3, 14.
[In the following review, Mosher praises the accessibility of Banks's characters and narrative in The Sweet Hereafter, calling the novel “Banks's most accomplished book to date.”]
A nobleman once asked a Chinese philosopher to bestow a blessing on his family. The famous scholar reflected briefly. Then he said, “Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies.” When the nobleman indicated his distress, the philosopher shrugged his shoulders. “What other way would you have it?” he said.
Of course, any alternative to the natural progression of life and death from one generation to the next seems nearly unthinkable. Yet it's exactly such a tragic reversal of human mortality that Russell Banks confronts in The Sweet Hereafter, his latest and best novel to date, in which the Adirondack town of Sam Dent is devastated by the loss of 14 of its children in a freak schoolbus accident. As Billy Ansel, an articulate local garage owner and father of two of the victims, says: “It's almost beyond belief or comprehension, that the children should die before the adults. It flies in the face of biology, it contradicts history, it denies cause and effect, it violates basic physics, even. It's the final contrary. A town that loses its children loses its meaning.”...
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SOURCE: Danziger, Jeff. “Small Town Tragedy.” Christian Science Monitor (24 September 1991): 15.
[In the following review, Danziger compliments the philosophical depth of The Sweet Hereafter and notes that Banks's fiction is improving which each subsequent work.]
Russell Banks's third major novel [The Sweet Hereafter], after Continental Drift and Affliction, is a work of wonderful tenderness and strength, told with his unique skill of keeping a fundamental philosophic question just below the surface of everyday events. Given the declining quality of American novels, Banks could be at the top by remaining the same. Instead, he improves.
The story is told by four people: Dolores Driscoll, a school-bus driver in a small town; Billy Ansel, father of two of the children on the bus; Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer; and Nichole Burnell, a student. In the accident on which the story is centered, Ansel loses his children and Nichole is paralyzed. Dolores survives the accident—the plunge of the bus through the guardrail and-into the water-filled quarry—and then tries to survive survival. Mitchell Stephens becomes the attorney for the group of parents who mount a lawsuit.
As in Banks's Affliction, the events take place in a small town—a small, unlovely stretch of road in upstate New York somewhere north of Albany. Banks has worked hard to...
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SOURCE: Rifkind, Donna. “A Town Divided.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4646 (17 April 1992): 20.
[In the following review, Rifkind provides a stylistic and thematic examination of The Sweet Hereafter, praising the novel's subtle realism.]
“Gritty”, “muscular” and “vigorous” are the words most commonly used to characterize the writing of Russell Banks, whose blue-collar American tragedies have earned him big prizes and teaching positions in leading American universities. Much of the grit in Banks's work comes from autobiographical sources. The heroes of Continental Drift (1985) and Affliction (1989) hail from the same kind of wintry, disintegrating New Hampshire town in which he himself was brought up. His father, an alcoholic plumber, was surely a model for the abusive father in Affliction. And the seedier parts of Florida, where Banks lived for a time, serve as settings for Continental Drift, and for some of the short fiction in Success Stories (1986).
Banks's latest novel, The Sweet Hereafter, has no apparent autobiographical basis. The story, which is based on several real-life news items, begins in a snowstorm with a full school bus descending a hill in the fictional town of Sam Dent, in upstate New York. When the bus swerves, smashing through a guard rail and plunging into a sandpit filled with icy water, fourteen...
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SOURCE: Cotter, James Finn. Review of The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks. America 116, no. 4157 (2 May 1992): 391.
[In the following review, Cotter asserts that the driving thematic focus of The Sweet Hereafter is Banks's “relentless quest to plumb the mystery of tragedy as it affects individuals and communities.”]
A school bus runs off the road into a frozen water-filled sandpit and 14 children are killed. The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks, narrates the bitter aftermath that envelopes the upstate New York community of Sam Dent in the months that follow. Sorrow, anger and recriminations divide people already isolated by vast space and cold climate. Lonely lives turn inward and winter locks in spring.
Banks, the author of ten other books including Continental Drift and Affliction, describes the barren but majestic landscape of mountains and forests with a painter's eye and captures the painful yet noble lives of the townspeople with a storyteller's art. Scenes on the snow-covered highway where the accident occurs, desolate homes and motel rooms, garage backlots, bars and the demolition derby stands where the final confrontation takes place print themselves on the mind like scenes from a film.
Banks also gets under his characters' skins and into their hearts and heads. Four of them narrate the tragedy and the events of the...
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SOURCE: Leckie, Ross. “Plot-Resistant Narrative and Russell Banks's ‘Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 3 (summer 1994): 407-13.
[In the following essay, Leckie investigates how the narrative minimalism of Banks's short story “Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat” functions to explore issues of cultural diversity.]
If much of contemporary literary theory emphasizes the cultural production of class, race, and gender in American fiction, contemporary fiction that utilizes the resources of narrative minimalism to explore issues of cultural division—fiction by such writers as Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, Susan Minot, and Russell Banks—increasingly provides the context for critical debate. The refusal to elaborate plot or to use plot to suggest a narrator who controls interpretation, becomes itself a strategy that allows the reader to observe clearly the boundaries between the story's minimal plot and the way the socially produced narratives invoked by the story enforce cultural division. If we conceive of narrative as the establishment, for the reader, of a network of expectations within a frame of contingency, then perhaps no expectation is more fundamental than that of intelligible action: the progression of story through chronological time, which we commonly refer to as plot. In a world where the possibilities of plot express...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Into the Night Sky: The Tale of a Modern-Day Huck Finn.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 May 1995): 3, 7.
[In the following review, Eder contrasts Rule of the Bone with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, arguing that Banks's reimagining of Twain's novel is ultimately flawed.]
Trying to tell the story of a modern Huckleberry Finn, with present-day counterparts for Jim, Tom Sawyer, the raft and other situations and characters as well, Russell Banks takes some awful risks [in Rule of the Bone]. Several he manages admirably, several he flunks, and the largest he ignores at his peril.
“Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished,” Mark Twain wrote at the start of his masterpiece. It's not that Huck's and Jim's story lacks sharp observations upon the oddities and horrors of life in the South before the Civil War. Of course it has morals; but for us to be free to sense Huck's own buoyant and picaresque freedom, it is necessary that we are instructed not to look for them. The morals arise imperceptibly from the adventures; they are in Huck's learning, not in his preaching. And when he does attempt a moral, instead of dropping from his lips it curls upward along with the smoke from his corncob.
Banks' Chappie, a 14-year-old Upstate New Yorker, runs away from his abusive stepfather, takes refuge...
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SOURCE: Hulbert, Ann. “Life on the Run.” New Republic 212, no. 4193 (29 May 1995): 40-2.
[In the following review, Hulbert finds parallels between Banks's protagonist, Chappie, in Rule of the Bone and the iconic fictional characters of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.]
Russell Banks narrates his new novel in the colloquial voice of a 14-year-old who has the possibly unique distinction of almost never using a certain four-letter word: “like,” as in “I'm like how am I going to tell my story, and he's like don't ask me.” A staple of adolescent vernacular, “like” is a hiccup of self-conscious diffidence: don't mistake me for sincere or eloquent, I'm cool and non-committal. That Chappie Dorset, a high-school dropout from a small town in the Adirondacks, is free of this tic of teenage dialect is a key to his lineage, and thus to the tradition that The Rule of the Bone aspires to. Banks is aiming higher than an adolescent classic in the mold of Catcher in the Rye, for and about the disaffected young in an age of indulgence. (Holden Caulfield would have run “like” into the ground if he'd had the chance.) He intends an indictment of a decaying and divided era, which is meant to be heard by adults. And he has The American Classic in mind. Chappie Dorset's literary antecedent is Huck Finn, the 14-year-old witness with an utterly original voice.
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SOURCE: Mesic, Penelope. “Adolescent Adrift: Russell Banks' Remarkable Portrait of a Modern-Day Huck Finn.” Chicago Tribune Books (11 June 1995): section 14, p. 3.
[In the following review, Mesic lauds Banks's vivid and believable characterizations in Rule of the Bone.]
You see the young drifting in shoals through malls, clustering together and then slipping away, hair lank or shaved to nothing or twisted into dreadlocks, tender ears tagged with multiple silver rings as if repeatedly captured and released. Their clothes are ripped and nondescript, protective coloring in a drab and dangerous world. From this inscrutable throng of no-longer-children, not-yet-adults, Russell Banks has chosen a resourceful, undersized, 14-year-old boy to serve as narrator and hero of his latest novel, a brilliantly funny and heartfelt work called Rule of the Bone. Named Chapman, nicknamed “Chappie,” later “Bone,” the boy is good-natured, shrewd and more than a little screwed up, but—and this is Banks' great accomplishment—believably young, with all the raw freshness, resiliency and sense of adventure that implies.
He also has a deadpan naivete reminiscent of Huck Finn's, which allows him to deliver devastating judgments while apparently unaware that he has done so. His mother, who drinks too much, is affectionate but nothing like as sharp as Chappie, although his love for her prevents...
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SOURCE: Baker, Phil. “A Small-Town Kid.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4813 (30 June 1995): 22.
[In the following review, Baker notes the moralistic and sentimental subject matter in Rule of the Bone, deeming the novel “probably more commercial than [Banks's] previous work.”]
The Bone wasn't always the Bone. Once he was Chapman “Chappie” Dorset, a small-town kid frequenting Plattsburgh shopping mall. After his Mom and his abusive step-dad kick him out for stealing the family's heirloom coin collection to buy weed, Chappie moves in with a biker gang above a video rental store, tolerated by the older guys because he keeps them in drugs. Presumed dead in a fire (at which he wasn't actually present, although one of the bikers dies trying to save him), he begins a new life. He steals a car with his friend Russ and they take off to stay with a pair of spindly, smack-head brothers who don't smell too good and live in a crashed school bus. Russ has a biker tattoo to get rid of, so they go to the Art-O-Rama tattoo studio to get it covered with a black panther. And when Chappie keeps him company with some crossed bones on his own arm, the Bone is born, his adventures have only just started.
Russell Banks's very moral and somewhat sentimental novel [Rule of the Bone] is an exercise in “doing” a voice, revamping the picaresque narrator to make an...
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SOURCE: Morton, Brian. “First of the Mohicans.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 360 (7 July 1995): 37.
[In the following review, Morton places Rule of the Bone within the context of the American literary tradition.]
Uh-oh. Salinger wannabe on the scanner, Captain. “You'll probably think I'm making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or smarter or even luckier but I'm not.” That's no J D Salinger, Sulu … that's Mark Twain!
Russell Banks' prose, like Don DeLillo's, has an insistent, buttonholing quality even at its most neutral. But when it inhabits the coolly wised-up consciousness of Chappie, aka “Bone”, it's harder to get away from than a Big Issue ambush. Even allowing for the wonderful Continental Drift, this [Rule of the Bone] is the book that promotes Banks to the premier division of US novelists. In it, Banks seems aware that he is inscribing himself into a long tradition.
With his nose-rings, Mohican and promising weed habit, Chappie makes Holden Caulfield sound like John-Boy Walton, and Huck Finn a virtual Pollyanna. Chappie—Chapman—lives with a deflated mom and an abusive step-dad in trailer-park America. Lives, that is, until steadily mounting tensions push him to light out for the New Frontier—the Banks territory of the dispossessed. Chappie forages like a true mall-rat, hacks a...
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SOURCE: Peaco, Ed. Review of Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks. Antioch Review 53, no. 4 (fall 1995): 497-98.
[In the following review, Peaco faults Rule of the Bone for stretching the believability of its characters and plot.]
How much slack can you cut the author and narrator as they stretch credulity [in Rule of the Bone]? A 14-year-old boy named Chapman (“Chappie”), who later renames himself Bone, steals from family and mall stores, then quits school and home to deal marijuana to a biker gang. Mistakes force him to run from friends-turned-enemies until he joins I-Man, an elderly Jamaican Rastafarian, and Sister Rose, a homeless child, with whom he discovers familial love. Stretches for sure, but refreshing so far. Bone is the victim of still more social ills, enough to keep counselors and talk-show hosts busy for the rest of their lives: alcoholic mother, absent father, abusive stepfather, child-porn predator, dangerous friends, terrible luck, and wretched judgment. But he hardly ever whines. Instead, Bone endures and escapes, rattling through socioeconomic strata in convincingly madcap, picaresque sequences that lead to I-Man's ganja underworld in Jamaica. Bone not only helps propagate and market the product, he achieves through it a mystical-hallucinatory enlightenment to self-knowledge more powerful than any buzz ever attributed to a smoldering herb. But while hyperbole...
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SOURCE: Herron, Jerry. “American Anger and the Lost Art of Liking.” Georgia Review 50, no. 3 (fall 1996): 609-15.
[In the following excerpt, Herron compares the portrayals of American society in Rule of the Bone and Witold Rybczynski's City Life, commenting that both novels function as “mirrors” of contemporary social mores.]
By this late date in the “American Century,” it is probably unnecessary to point out how angry we are at each other, civically speaking, with Americans robbing, raping, murdering, incarcerating, and executing one another at rates that make us the wonder, if not precisely the envy, of the so-called developed world. And for those not prone to physical expressions of feeling, there are the simulacral beguilements of going down by law, which prove irresistible to an ever increasing number of actionable citizens. A toll-free number (1-800-LAW-SUIT) now offers drive-by litigation twenty-four hours a day. Concomitant with this rambunctious turn in our national polity is an equally familiar tut-tutting over the proliferation of hate-filled “talk” on radio and television, not to mention its electoral reflex in the negative campaign advertisements of political candidates, from village constables and city councilmen to the highest officials in the land: a voice-over harangue to narrate our collective flight from civility. Protestations to the contrary, however,...
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SOURCE: Niemi, Robert. “Success Story: The Life and Career of Russell Banks.” In Russell Banks, pp. 1-28. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1997.
[In the following essay, Niemi provides a biographical overview of Banks's life and traces his literary development from his early short stories and poetry through Rule of the Bone.]
There's no success like failure. And failure's no success at all.
A ZIGZAG PATTERN
Russell Earl Banks was born on 28 March 1940 in Newton, Massachusetts, the first of four children to Florence (Taylor) Banks, a homemaker, and Earl Banks, a plumber (as was Banks's grandfather). By his own admission, Russell Banks “was not an attractive baby, unusually long and skinny, big-headed and bald” until he was 18 months old.1 Banks also had crossed eyes, brought on, according to his mother, by whooping cough that refused to abate: “‘You wouldn't stop coughing, you couldn't, and your eyes got crossed then,’ she reports” (Banks, 34).
The dubious notion that pertussis crossed her son's eyes Banks sees as typical of his mother, whom he has described, rather bluntly, as a woman “who projects her needs and desires onto the world and reports back, more or less accurately, what she sees there” and as “a truthful but somewhat deluded and...
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SOURCE: Mayer, Henry. “Suffocating Virtue.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 March 1998): 3.
[In the following review, Mayer commends Banks's “mesmerizing” portrayal of John Brown in Cloudsplitter but notes that the work should not be categorized as a traditional historical novel.]
Of all the cultural puzzlements I encountered when moving as a seventh-grader from the Bronx to eastern North Carolina in 1953, the most curious was the way my new friends and neighbors would say that they couldn't get the “John Brown'd” thing to work or that they would be “John Brown'd” before they'd do something they didn't like. At first it seemed like gibberish; then I made the naive substitution of thinking they meant “hanged” and only gradually did it dawn on me that the expression was a grim and profane oath that meant, literally, damned by God and sent to roast in hell.
Nearly a century after the old soldier had risen up against slavery at Harpers Ferry, his very name remained a living curse in the South, and nearly half a century further on, his is still a name, like Lincoln's, permeated with the essence of the catastrophe we call the Civil War. Yet what is it about Brown's course of action—angry at the government for dishonoring its own principles, he formed a private militia and launched a violent attack upon federal property that left 17 people dead and ended with his...
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SOURCE: Banks, Russell, and Christine Benvenuto. “Mapping the Imagination: A Profile of Russell Banks.” Poets and Writers Magazine 26, no. 2 (March-April 1998): 20-7.
[In the following interview, Banks discusses the defining characteristics of his fiction, his personal history, and the inspirations behind Cloudsplitter.]
“You cannot understand how a man, a normal man, a man like you and me, could do such a terrible thing.”
So Russell Banks wrote in Affliction (Harper & Row, 1989), anticipating a reader's response to the exploits of his protagonist, Wade Whitehouse. In Wade's case, the behavior in question happened to be the murder of two people, one of them his father. But through a dozen novels and short story collections that have won him Guggenheim and NEA grants and a St. Lawrence Prize for fiction, Banks has made a life's work of charting the causes and effects of the terrible things “normal” men can and will do.
From the unnamed narrator of The Book of Jamaica (Houghton Mifflin, 1980), to Bob Dubois in Continental Drift (Harper & Row, 1985), to Nelson and Earl Painter in Success Stories (Harper & Row, 1986), to Bone in Rule of the Bone (HarperCollins, 1995), Banks's heroes are irresistibly compelled to wreck their own lives, and can't worry too much about who in their immediate vicinity they take...
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SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “God's Own Terrorist.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 6 (9 April 1998): 8-9.
[In the following review, Kazin faults Banks's weak characterizations in Cloudsplitter but contends that Banks “is a talented and agile novelist who moves easily from one American subject to another.”]
On a rainy Sunday night, October 16, 1859, seventeen men led by the violently religious abolitionist John Brown, who thought slavery a greater sin than murder and regarded himself as “an instrument in God's hands” for extirpating it, took over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. There the Potomac and Shenandoah meet.
“In the moment of their junction,” Jefferson wrote in Notes on Virginia (1785), “they rush together against the mountain, render it asunder, and pass off to the sea.” He called the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” and was confident that “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
What excited Jefferson was Nature charging about on land so near his own, erupting and breaking through the expected. John Brown, the subject of Russell Banks's new novel, [Cloudsplitter,] had not chosen Harpers Ferry for the “spectacle” it presented, but he certainly regarded himself as a force of nature answerable...
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SOURCE: Hill, Lawrence. “Gory, Gory, Hallelujah.” Maclean's 111, no. 15 (13 April 1998): 64.
[In the following review, Hill offers a mixed assessment of Cloudsplitter but concludes that it is a “profoundly moving novel.”]
American literary giant William Faulkner wrote his celebrated short story “Barn Burning” from the point of view of a boy. The tale's brilliance emerged not so much in the details of the man who dealt his enemies horrid strokes of violence, but in the way Faulkner presented the villain through the eyes of his young son. In Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks's epic about the life of John Brown—a white man who became the most violent and uncompromising anti-slavery advocate in U.S. history—the novelist has also chosen to tell the story from the vantage point of the main character's son, Owen. That strategy brings the reader within intimate reach of John Brown—close enough to underline, as only a family member can do, the gap between a man's public victories and private failures.
The opening pages find Owen an old and dying man, living alone in 1900 in a barren cabin in California. A biographer has approached him, seeking information about his father. What emerges from Owen's first-person account is a sad memoir of how he was unable to create a life for himself under the shadow of a domineering, charismatic father. In his early years, Owen shares...
(The entire section is 900 words.)
SOURCE: McPherson, James M. “A Fictional Portrait of John Brown.” Atlantic Monthly 281, no. 5 (May 1998): 124-29.
[In the following review, McPherson views Cloudsplitter as not only a biographical account of John Brown and his family, but also as an exploration of the complex relationship between generational and racial divides.]
Cloudsplitter is the English word for the Indian name of Mount Tahawus, in the Adirondacks, 120 miles north of Albany and near the rural community of North Elba, where the abolitionist John Brown established a home in 1849. But the real cloudsplitter in this novel [Cloudsplitter] is John Brown himself, who launched lightning strikes against pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and whose thunderbolt descent on Harpers Ferry, in 1859, lit flames of civil war that were not fully quenched even at Appomattox, six years later. Russell Banks has constructed this complex narrative on two levels. The first is the story of John Brown and his large family from the 1830s to the moment of his defeat at Harpers Ferry. The second and more profound level consists of a prolonged meditation on the interrelationships of blacks and whites and fathers and sons.
The first-person narrator is a fictionalized Owen Brown, John Brown's third son and his principal lieutenant in the Kansas wars. The story takes the form of autobiographical notes compiled by Owen in 1899...
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SOURCE: Appleby, Joyce. “After Harpers Ferry.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4964 (22 May 1998): 7.
[In the following review, Appleby derides the character of Owen, the narrator of Cloudsplitter, contending that Banks asks the character to do too much within the novel.]
Slavery and its legacies have never been far from the American political consciousness. The Boston town meeting called to protest against the British Stamp Act in 1765 passed a resolution calling for an end to slavery, so keenly did the protesters feel the contradiction between the much-talked-of rights of Englishmen and the colonists' enslavement of Africans. Once independence had been won, anti-slavery societies popped up everywhere—North and South. Taking seriously the natural-rights philosophy articulated in the Declaration of Independence, Northern reformers began agitating for the repeal of the state laws that had created property in human beings. A system of coerced labour which had been introduced into the British colonies with scarcely a murmur of opposition suddenly appeared like a stain, a blot on the escutcheon of the republican honour of the United States.
From the simple preamble to the Massachusetts state constitution to the intricate legislation providing for gradual emancipation passed in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, one by one, the Northern states found ways to end slavery in...
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SOURCE: Banks, Russell, Robert Faggen, and Barry Munger. “Russell Banks: The Art of Fiction CLII.” Paris Review 40, no. 147 (summer 1998): 50-88.
[In the following interview, Banks discusses his writing career, the literary influences behind his body of work, his creative process, and his approach to the legend of John Brown in Cloudsplitter.]
Russell Banks was born on March 28, 1940, in Newton, Massachusetts, and raised in the small town of Barnstead, New Hampshire, the son of Earl and Florence Banks. His father, a plumber, deserted the family when Banks was twelve. Banks helped provide for his mother and three siblings. An excellent student, winning a full scholarship to Colgate University, he dropped out in his first year with the intention of joining Fidel Castro's insurgent army in Cuba, but wound up working in a department store in Lakeland, Florida. He lived briefly in Boston, where he began to write short fiction and poetry, before returning to New Hampshire in 1964. Soon after, he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There he cofounded a small literary publishing house and magazine, Lillabulero.
Throughout the 1960s, Banks contributed short stories to a variety of literary magazines. He was graduated with honors from North Carolina in 1967 and returned to New Hampshire where he taught at Emerson College in Boston and the University of New...
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SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 54, no. 4 (fall 1998): 635-39.
[In the following excerpt, Bell elucidates various perspectives on the historical figure of John Brown and views Cloudsplitter as a work of revisionist history.]
The word “history”—whatever the postmodernists claim—retains the sense of what actually was, however squintedly seen, remembered, or recounted. But history is also what historians say happened—as fiction, a story (that shorter word derived from it and coiled into it, like a worm in an apple). The historians' history is a sense-making tale that tries to explain why things occurred as they did and somehow makes them visible inside our heads. History is never more “virtual” than when it resembles a novel. At the same time, the novel incorporates literal history. Laying aside its pretense of invention and resorting directly to truth-telling, the novel even sometimes lets in among its imagined persons some who once strode about among living men and women—like J. Edgar Hoover in DeLillo's Underworld, which I reviewed in this Chronicle recently. Fiction often backgrounds its made-up stuff with historical events and scenes. The novel never entirely escapes making some reference to actualities. At the maximum of such reference is the so-called historical novel, which undertakes to rewrite formal...
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SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Trailerpark Lives.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5085 (15 September 2000): 22.
[In the following review, Binding praises Banks's insight and sense of mercy in the stories collected in The Angel on the Roof, comparing Banks to Raymond Carver.]
“It's true of trailerparks”, observes Russell Banks in his long short story, “The Fisherman”, “that the people who live there are generally alone at the centre of their lives.” Trailers, which vary in size, shape, condition and quality, have this in common: they are only superficially grounded, they rest on the land without the foundations necessary for the more bourgeois buildings of town or suburb. Similarly their occupants, though they may remain in their trailers, indeed in the same park, for many years, never quite form, or even add up to, a community—however cognisant they are of one another's doings, whatever the friendships or enmities that develop between them. Their mode of living preserves (as it derives from) a detachment, which with advancing age becomes just another name for loneliness. They are widows and widowers, divorcees and bachelors and retired Army officers, a black man in a white society, a homosexual in a heterosexual society—all of them, man and woman, adult and child, basically alone in the world.
Viewed thus, the park is, Banks suggests, the perfect metaphor for late...
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SOURCE: Snodgrass, Kathleen. “Book Reviews.” Georgia Review 55, no. 1 (spring 2001): 149-61.
[In the following excerpt, Snodgrass commends Banks's powerful and “supple” prose in The Angel on the Roof, asserting that Banks crafts “memorable stories out of ordinary lives without straining for effect or significance.”]
Eudora Welty has described “place” as “one of the lesser angels that watch over the hand of fiction, the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair.” That lesser angel, says Welty, looms larger in realistic fiction: “Besides furnishing a plausible abode for the novel's world of feeling, place has a good deal to do with making the characters real, that is, themselves, and keeping them so. … Place, then, has the most delicate control over character too: by confining character, it defines it.” These characters must necessarily be inhabitants of a “chink-proof world of appearance,” a world that these five books under review all share. …
Russell Banks's collection of thirty-one stories, The Angel on the Roof, has been culled from four previously published books of stories and arranged, he tells us in an author's note, “thematically and dramatically” rather than chronologically. In prose that's muscular...
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Banks, Russell, and J. J. Wylie. “Reinventing Realism: An Interview with Russell Banks.” Michigan Quarterly Review 39, no. 4 (fall 2000): 737-53.
Banks discusses his poetry, his attitude toward literary realism, and stylistic aspects of his fiction.
Coates, Joseph. “Tragically Redeemed.” Chicago Tribune Books (15 September 1991): section 14, pp. 1, 23.
Coates praises Banks's portrayal of small-town life in The Sweet Hereafter.
Dodd, Susan. “The End of Innocence, The Getting of Wisdom.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 23 (4 June 1995): 9.
Dodd commends the protagonist of Rule of the Bone as a “perceptive” and “compelling” character.
Lawson, Guy. “Teenage Wasteland.” Maclean's 108, no. 28 (10 July 1995): 42-3.
Lawson compares Rule of the Bone to Richard Ford's Independence Day.
Mowry, Jess. “Runaway Tale.” Nation 260, no. 23 (12 June 1995): 826-29.
Mowry argues that Rule of the Bone is ultimately an unrealistic, coming-of-age fantasy.
Postlethwaite, Diana. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 87, no. 1 (January 1999): 139-49.
Postlethwaite contrasts Cloudsplitter, Rilla Askew's The...
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