Banks, Russell (Short Story Criticism)
Russell Banks 1940–-
American short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor.
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.
The eldest of four children born to working-class parents, Banks was raised in Barnstead, New Hampshire. As a youth he endured many hardships, including living on the brink of poverty and his parents' divorce. Banks enrolled at Colgate College in 1958, but left after only eight weeks because he felt like “a poor kid” among “the sons of the captains of American industry.” After this experience, Banks decided to join Fidel Castro's revolutionary army in Cuba. His funds took him only as far as St. Petersburg, Florida, however, where he lived in a trailer park, worked a variety of odd jobs, and began writing short fiction. Banks left Florida in the mid-1960s and traveled to the Yucatán and Jamaica, experiences he would later incorporate into his fiction. Deciding to continue his education, Banks earned an English degree from the University of North Carolina in 1967. He has since taught literature at such institutions as Sarah Lawrence College and Princeton University.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his early works, Banks experimented with a variety of literary forms and techniques, revealing a talent for blending fantasy into realistically detailed stories. In the short story collections Searching for Survivors and The New World, he subtly merges extraordinary elements with ordinary ones. For example, in the story “The Conversions,” Banks introduces a vision of Jesus Christ into his portrait of an emotionally confused adolescent. In the early 1980s, Banks began to focus on social problems, addressing issues like poverty and discrimination in his fiction. In Trailerpark, a work comprised of thirteen interrelated stories, he examines how the poor, uneducated residents of a trailer park community in New Hampshire contend with alcoholism, greed, and loneliness. In his next collection, Success Stories, Banks reveals the anxiety and despair of life in a small, working-class town. The Angel on the Roof collects thirty of his short stories from previous collections.
Critics praise Banks's depiction of working-class people struggling to overcome poverty, alcoholism, alienation, self-destructive relationships, and overwhelming despair. His fiction has been lauded for its lyrical prose, well-defined characters, powerful voice, and narrative techniques. Autobiographical aspects of his work have also attracted interest, as scholars perceived his stories as an attempt to process the traumas of his youth. His work has been compared to that of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus.
Searching for Survivors 1975
The New World 1978
Success Stories 1986
Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks 2000
Family Life (novel) 1975
Hamilton Stark (novel) 1978
The Book of Jamaica (novel) 1980
The Relation of My Imprisonment (novel) 1984
Continental Drift (novel) 1985
Affliction (novel) 1989
The Sweet Hereafter (novel) 1991
Rule of the Bone (novel) 1995
Cloudsplitter (novel) 1998
The Invisible Stranger: The Patten, Maine, Photographs of Arturo Patten (nonfiction) 1999
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SOURCE: “Literature's Stepchild,” in Nation, Vol. 228, No. 5, February 10, 1979, p. 153.
[In the following review, Shorris offers a favorable assessment of The New World.]
The New World, by Russell Banks, is divided into two sections: “Renunciation,” in which his more conventional stories appear, and “Transformation,” where the writing is more experimental. “The Conversion,” which appears in the first section, tells of Alvin Stock, a 16-year-old New Hampshire boy, in the classic throes of tortured adolescence. Alvin hates himself for his masturbatory fantasies, his unending virginity and his doltishness in the presence of his father. At the same time he feels great tenderness toward his mother and younger sisters. Alvin's most excruciating sufferings are caused by his clumsiness with girls, and during one particularly painful school dance, he sees a vision of Christ which makes him decide to be a minister. We know, however, that this will not be the final resolution for Alvin, for there are no simple resolutions, and the story is too true, too credible, to provide us with any. Banks has perfect pitch for telling of the little near-deaths we have all suffered.
Less successful but more adventurous are the stories in the second part of the book. These deal with actual people in imaginary situations: a weary, aging Simon Bolivar contemplating his life and envying a...
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SOURCE: A review of The New World, in The American Book Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, Summer, 1979, pp. 9–10.
[In the following review, Dessner praises the variety of stories found in The New World.]
Readers unfamiliar with the work of Russell Banks might do well to begin with the last and title story of his new collection, The New World. Here a preposterous epic poem is described, and an old moral fable told, and both related to the intersecting lives of their authors. What matters, our narrator tells us, is “the spark that … flew” from the lives to the literary creations: “That spark was everything. It's how one forgives oneself and others.” This helps us see that the stories Banks' characters tell, plain people as well as professional novelists, in whatever genre, whether committed to paper or not, are not simply good or poor literature nor merely rationalizations, confessions, justifications, or sublimations, but their authors' best and only way to forgive themselves and others. But in a world in which uncertainty has become a principle, fictions are problematic. They lead less surely to illumination than to a web of infinite regression. Making fictions, “puttering away at signs of self that are larger than self,” is what the characters in The New World do. In the novel, Hamilton Stark, the narrator and the reader are themselves caught by their own needs in the...
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SOURCE: “Life behind the Fiberglass Curtains,” in Book World, The Washington Post, Vol. 11, No. 4, October 4, 1981, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley contends that Trailerpark “is an odd, quirky book that offers satisfactions different from those provided by the conventional, or even unconventional, novel.”]
The dust jacket copy of Trailerpark begins with this curious plea: “Read this book as you would a novel—from the beginning straight through to the end.” Inasmuch as Trailerpark is elsewhere described by its publisher as “a novel,” it's difficult to imagine how else to read it—from the middle to the end to the beginning, perhaps? Backwards?
Never mind. The point is to read it, any old way you want. Its publisher's good-hearted protests notwithstanding, Trailerpark is not a novel but a collection of interrelated short stories. Each of them is uncommonly good, and the whole of Trailerpark is greater than the sum of its parts; it is an odd, quirky book that offers satisfactions different from those provided by the conventional, or even unconventional, novel.
Specifically, they are the satisfactions of surprising, lively writing and believably human characters, held together by no central plot line or structure; yet the book has a unifying mood and, of course, a unifying setting—the trailerpark. It is...
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SOURCE: “The Many Mirrors: Joyce's Techniques,” in Paradoxical Resolutions: American Fiction Since James Joyce, University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 34–50.
[In the following excerpt, Werner explores the influence of James Joyce's narrative technique on Banks's Searching for Survivors.]
DUBLIN(ER)'S JOYCE: ERNEST GAINES, FLANNERY O'CONNOR, RUSSELL BANKS
Although [James] Joyce did not invent the epiphany, he effectively “patented” it. Stephen Dedalus' theory of the epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” capitalizes upon the developmental work of several predecessors. Anton Chekov's short stories often rely on seemingly innocuous details which, when viewed from the right perspective, yield unexpected spiritual insights. Though University College Dublin professor Gerard Manley Hopkins remained largely unknown until the publication of his poetry in 1918, his inscapes anticipate Joyce's epiphanies. Nonetheless, Dubliners remains the first book of short fiction to rely primarily on the technique which has since revolutionized the short story, whether as published by the New Yorker or by the Fiction Collective.
Joyce's terminology, rather than Hopkins's, has been accepted largely because Joyce helped transform the modern idea of the “short...
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SOURCE: A review of Success Stories, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 22, 1986, pp. 3, 10.
[In the following review, Eder provides a positive assessment of Success Stories.]
Quite steadily, and often powerfully, Russell Banks has been devising fictional varieties of the “this is poison” labels on cigarette advertisements.
Our society's promise of an affable world of clean microdots and expanding consumption—the equivalent of the pool-side set blithely puffing away—has lethal side effects, he tells us. Unlike cigarette ads, this easygoing social gospel comes without warnings; so here is Banks.
He is not much concerned with the sensibility class, those who can afford cocaine, condos and foreign cars with domestic exhaust. He writes about people a notch or two down: blue-collar workers looking for something better, the young unprivileged trying to make it, migrants and emigrants; in short, all those who seek to acquire the kind of bed in which you can dream the American dream. The search is active and forlorn; and because it means muscling in on what is already taken, it can be deadly.
Banks' Continental Drift was a fierce novel about two sorts of underclass colliding fatally, as both try to seize what seems to be promised in 1980s America. A New Hampshire repairman, lured by the advertised ease and easy wealth of south...
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SOURCE: “More than Zero,” in the Nation, Vol. 243, No. 7, September 13, 1986, pp. 226–28.
[In the following mixed assessment of Success Stories, Pfeil asserts that Banks “has put in enough time in working-class America to have an exact sense of what its dreams and betrayals feel like and how they work.”]
No one … will ever accuse Russell Banks of gorgeous writing: his prose has the precise force of a steady, measured outrage. Which is not to say he is not skilled—only that the craft he was honing through the 1970s in Searching for Survivors and Hamilton Stark has now been placed at the service of a terrible probity.
In his last book, Continental Drift, Banks crosscut the story of Bob DuBois, a working-class white man trying to hustle up some luck in Florida, with the tale of Vanise Dorsinville, a Haitian woman trying to get to the United States with only the loa of voodoo for protection. The result was a powerful if not perfect book: at once a celebration of both Vanise's doomed heroism and Bob's pathetically inadequate goodness, and a howl against what the free market system makes out of the world. A similar project is evident in Banks's new collection, Success Stories, whose pieces both compose a loose Bildungsroman of another New England working-class boy, Earl Painter, and play off the exemplary story of his betrayal and...
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SOURCE: “Moving Upwards,” in the Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1986, p. 920.
[In the following essay, Fonseca offers a mixed review of Success Stories.]
Russell Banks's novel Continental Drift, published in the UK last year (TLS, October 25, 1985), traces the fate of two unsimilar families—one from Haiti and the other from New Hampshire—as they travel to Florida in search of the idea of America. The newcomers' innocent dreams of opportunity inevitably collapse into nightmares of exploitation, humiliation and death. Rude awakenings are also the subject of Success Stories, although, as befits the shorter form, the migrations tend to be closer to home—excursions into family history, journeys of the heart.
Success Stories is not a particularly coherent collection—it has the makings of two books (and one of them is a novel). Half of the dozen stories are connected by way of Banks's fictional alter ego, who recurs as narrator, character, or implied audience. Each story reads like a chapter; we get the same street, the same Studebaker, the same job at the same department store (Maas Bros), and the same girl—Eleanor—reappearing throughout. One is left with the feeling that this contiguity is essential to the success of these stories, which is a way of saying that the novel is a happier form for Banks.
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SOURCE: “Plot-Resistant Narrative and Russell Banks's ‘Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, Summer, 1994, pp. 407–13.
[In the following essay, Leckie analyzes Banks's narrative technique in “Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat.”]
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 unattainable desires on the part of a narrative's characters, however, the reader's...
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SOURCE: “Apprentice Fiction: Searching for Survivors,” in Russell Banks, Twayne Publishers, 1997, pp. 47–63.
[In the following essay, Niemi categorizes the stories comprising Searching for Survivors and surveys the major themes of the collection.]
Nobody had enough imagination.
—John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”
With the short stories that eventually comprised his first collection, Searching for Survivors (1975), Banks continued to use his writing to process the traumas of his youth and young manhood.1 Yet, unlike the poetry, Searching for Survivors goes well beyond the autobiographical impulse. Though Banks does not classify them as such, these 14 stories lend themselves to three general groupings: (1) five moral-political parables; (2) a trilogy of stories that feature the slain Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara as a kind of icon or informing presence; (3) a half dozen quasi-autobiographical tales set in New England. While many of these carefully crafted stories are presented in a relatively straightforward realist style, in more than a few, Banks parodies the illusionist conventions of literary realism. He also conducts the kinds of experiments with narrative style, structure, and point of view that were then all the rage among young writers avid to ally themselves with John...
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Faggen, Robert, and Barry Munger. “Russell Banks: The Art of Fiction.” Paris Review 40, No. 147 (Summer 1998): 50–88.
Banks discusses his major influences, his childhood, and his creative process.
Long, J. V. “New Collections, New Pleasures.” Commonweal 113, No. 18 (24 October 1986): 570–72.
Positive review of Success Stories.
Reeves, Trish. “The Search for Clarity: An Interview with Russell Banks.” New Letters 53, No. 3 (Spring 1987): 44–59.
Banks touches on the role of writer in society as well as his narrative technique.
Shapiro, Anna. A review of Trailerpark, by Russell Banks. Saturday Review 8 (October 1981): 76.
Deems Trailerpark “a lucid, serious, witty frieze of a book.”
Additional coverage of Banks's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65–68; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 15; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 19, 52, 73; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 37, 72; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130.
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