Rule of the Bone Critical Essays

Russell Banks

Rule of the Bone

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although it features a wandering street urchin whom critics have likened to Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, RULE OF THE BONE is ultimately neither for nor about children. Bank’s real and bitter subject is the sorry behavior of adults. The novel’s underlying premise is that the “baby-boom” generation is guilty of a terrible crime: the wholesale neglect, exploitation, and abandonment of its children.

Chappie Dorset, the book’s protagonist and first-person narrator, is clearly meant to function as a type; he represents hundreds of semiferal youths who haunt the streets, malls, and parks of the urban landscape, pimping, panhandling, thieving, dealing drugs, bartering anything and everything to survive. Yet Banks also manages the harder task of making Chappie a unique individual with his own voice—and a harrowing story to tell.

Child of a broken home, Chappie endures the sexual advances of his mother’s alcoholic boyfriend, Ken, until he reaches his breaking point and runs away. Thus begins a furtive, drug-ridden odyssey in the Adirondack region that takes Chappie (“Bone”) and Russ, another homeless boy, to the dubious shelters of a biker pad, an abandoned school bus, and the unoccupied summer house of affluent out- of-staters, which they proceed to destroy.

Unfortunately, the last part of this otherwise gripping novel strains credibility. Banks has Bone venture to Jamaica with I-Man, a middle-aged Rastafarian migrant laborer who comes to serve as the boy’s mentor and surrogate father—all the better to contrast with Bone’s real father, Doc, a selfish egomaniac whom Bone miraculously finds living on Jamaica. In the end, Bone survives all his travails, learns some important lessons about race and social class, and is able to get beyond his nostalgia for the family he never had.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, March 1, 1995, p. 1139.

Hungry Mind Review. Summer, 1995, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 21, 1995, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLX, June 12, 1995, p. 826.

The New Republic. CCXII, May 29, 1995, p. 40.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, July 7, 1995, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 7, 1995, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 20, 1995, p. 193.

Time. CXLV, June 5, 1995, p. 65.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 4, 1995, p. 9.