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.
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).
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.
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.”