Russell Banks Banks, Russell (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Howard Frank Mosher (review date 8 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeff Danziger (review date 24 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Donna Rifkind (review date 17 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Finn Cotter (review date 2 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 21 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Ann Hulbert (review date 29 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Penelope Mesic (review date 11 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Phil Baker (review date 30 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Brian Morton (review date 7 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ed Peaco (review date fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jerry Herron (essay date fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Niemi (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

—Bob Dylan


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...

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Henry Mayer (review date 8 March 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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;...

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Russell Banks and Christine Benvenuto (interview date March-April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 9 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence Hill (review date 13 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James M. McPherson (review date May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joyce Appleby (review date 22 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Russell Banks, Robert Faggen, and Barry Munger (interview date summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Millicent Bell (review date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Binding (review date 15 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kathleen Snodgrass (review date spring 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


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