Rule of the Bone

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Russell Banks began his literary career in the late 1960’s as a writer of experimental fiction. Over the years, Banks has steadily moved away from aesthetically self- conscious avant-garde forms in order to embrace a relatively straightforward realist idiom. At the same time, Banks has chosen to focus ever more intensively on the lives of working-class people. Both of these moves indicate a deliberate ideological agenda that happens to be at variance with that of most mainstream writers, who tend to make a fetish of their “art” or confine their subject matter to more politically neutral topics. Banks is a man with a mission—or several missions: to be true to a wide range of contemporary life, to write serious social critique, and to suggest to the American middle class how the other half lives. Implicit in all Banks’s later work is the conviction that the United States is a class society that denies the very existence of social class as an everyday reality.

Rule of the Bone marks another step in Banks’s evolution as a political writer who understands that politics is not really about government, voting, and the like; politics in the deepest sense actually plays out in terms of lifestyles, in modes of thought and emotional attitudes, in the myriad ways that marginal groups are ignored, condemned, or warred upon by the hegemonic powers that be. Fittingly, given his sociopolitical outlook, Banks builds Rule of the Bone around the severely damaged life of a fourteen-year-old “mall rat” from a broken home in upstate New York. Creating such a story in the third person would be a singularly ambitious imaginative endeavor for a successful writer in his mid-fifties, but Banks attempts the even riskier gambit of telling Chappie’s story from the first-person point of view.

Yet Banks’s choice of narrative approach is astute; half boy, half man, with one foot in society and one foot outside it, Chappie is well positioned to see the naked workings of “the system” in ways that more respectable folk never dare to imagine. Furthermore, Banks wisely refuses to condescend to his subject; he makes Chappie intelligent and aware, with a sardonic view of the state of things. The result of these narrative decisions is a generally gripping story that falters only in its last stages.

When readers first meet him, narrator Chappie Dorset sports earrings, a nose ring, a mohawk hairstyle, and a massive marijuana habit. Yet Chappie is not a social degenerate but simply the contemporary version of a lost, lonely, and alienated teenager. Ten years earlier, his father abandoned the family and was eventually replaced by Ken, an alcoholic pederast who makes lewd demands on his stepson.

Driven to the end of his endurance by Ken’s abuse and his mother’s indifference, Chappie leaves home in the middle of an angry confrontation with his stepfather over some stolen coins. He and another homeless friend, Russ, soon find themselves living with members of a biker gang (who call themselves “Adirondack Iron”) in a slum apartment above a video store. This dubious situation sours when the bikers discover that Russ has been stealing their stolen loot. Fearing for their lives, the boys flee in the night, but not before inadvertently starting a fire that kills Bruce, a biker who dies in a mistaken attempt to save Chappie.

All connections with family and surrogate family broken, Russ and Chappie steal a Ford Ranger pickup, take a joyride, abandon the vehicle, and end up at a wrecked school bus occupied by the “Bong Brothers,” a pair of drug-addled college dropouts. In trouble with bikers and with the police, Russ and Chappie decide to slough off their old identities and assume new ones. They develop aliases (“Buck” and “Bone,” respectively) and acquire tattoos before moving to their next temporary haven: an unoccupied summer house nestled in the woods of Adirondack State Park in Keene, New York. Holed up in the house for a number of weeks, the boys eat what food is available, break up the furniture for firewood, and generally make a shambles of the premises. Eventually abandoned by Russ, Bone has no choice but to set out on the road...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)