Russell Banks Long Fiction Analysis
Russell Banks’s novels explore how individuals and communities suffer through and attempt to master their own lives. In The Sweet Hereafter, for example, four narrators confront the meaning of a tragic bus accident that took the lives of fourteen children and changed their Adirondack community forever. Banks pursues a similar narrator-main character symbiosis in Affliction, the story of Rolfe Whitehouse’s quest to piece together the events leading up to his brother’s disappearance. The same theme runs through Cloudsplitter, in which John Brown’s son Owen recounts his troubled relationship with his father and the events driving the Brown family toward the fatal raid in 1859 on the Harper’s Ferry armory, which was to be Brown’s crowning blow against slavery. Owen feels compelled to retell and analyze his father’s life.
The hero of Hamilton Stark has been described as a misanthropic pipe fitter, apparently modeled on Banks’s father. The narrator who seeks to understand Stark has been compared to Nick Carraway of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), which is high praise indeed and indicative of Banks’s ability to not only submerse himself in his characters but also provide a perspective on them.
Stories in Banks’s novels are usually filtered through the perspective of a narrator attempting to establish or reconnect with the main characters. Thus, the narrative of a Banks novel is itself an act of reconstruction: Getting the story in the proper order obsesses the narrator, whose own fate depends on understanding the lives of those who have touched him or her.
This novel focuses on two main characters who leave home to start a new life in Florida. Bob Dubois, thirty years old and living in New Hampshire, and Vanise Dorsinville, a young Haitian mother who emigrates to America, both seek a kind of visionary future that will lift them out of the rut of materialism and the day-to-day routines of their lives. What unites them is Banks’s austere, unsentimental prose.
As the novel’s title suggests, these two lives seem part of a broader movement, the ever-shifting versions of the American Dream to pursue happiness and find a better life. Banks’s ability to imagine these different lives in extraordinary detail and from a panoramic perspective earned the plaudits of critics who suggested the author’s work was now entering the mainstream of American fiction.
In this historical novel, Owen Brown narrates the story of his father’s life and his own ambivalent feelings about the course of events that led to the raid on the government armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The raid was the doomed culmination of a plan to foment a slave uprising that would (the Browns and their followers hoped) ultimately result in the abolition of slavery. The novel’s structure reflects Banks’s well-established method of making his novels as much about the teller as the tale.
Although Owen was not actually at his father’s side in the raid at Harper’s Ferry, Banks’s decision to use him as the narrator proves ingenious, since Owen is free to describe his father and events from his own unique perspective that cannot be contradicted by the historical record. Owen is writing a memoir to understand his own involvement with his father and with history. He supplies a psychodynamic description of himself and his father that is beyond what is permissible in historical accounts.
At first deeply disturbed by his father’s rigid inflexibility and willingness to shed the slaveholders’ blood, Owen becomes his father’s most faithful disciple, abandoning him only when it becomes clear that the Harper’s Ferry raid cannot succeed. Owen, who is subject to temptations of the flesh and to a conflicted attitude about race, exposes the wide range of emotions that his father abjures in his single-minded plan of attack on slavery. John Brown hardens himself into a symbol, and Owen confesses his failure to do likewise....
(The entire section is 1679 words.)