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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...

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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

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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)

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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 natural progression of life and death from one generation to the next seems nearly unthinkable. Yet it's exactly such a tragic reversal of human mortality that Russell Banks confronts in The Sweet Hereafter, his latest and best novel to date, in which the Adirondack town of Sam Dent is devastated by the loss of 14 of its children in a freak schoolbus accident. As Billy Ansel, an articulate local garage owner and father of two of the victims, says: “It's almost beyond belief or comprehension, that the children should die before the adults. It flies in the face of biology, it contradicts history, it denies cause and effect, it violates basic physics, even. It's the final contrary. A town that loses its children loses its meaning.”

The Sweet Hereafter begins with Dolores Driscoll, the town's long-time schoolbus driver, describing the fateful day of the accident. It's immediately apparent from her account that she is a first-rate driver: reliable, cautious, comfortable behind the wheel and good with the children, from the “fieldmouse poor” Lamston kids to Nichole Burnell, the local beauty queen and a straight-A student who will be permanently paralyzed by the accident. “It's almost impossible to say how important and pleasurable that job was to me,” Dolores says—until that terrible snowy morning when she saw, or thought she saw, something dash in front of the bus on the steep downgrade above the town's abandoned sandpit:

For the rest of my life I will remember that red-brown blur, like a stain of dried blood, standing against the road with a thin screen of blown snow suspended between it and me, the full weight of the vehicle and the thirty-four children in it bearing down on me like a wall of water. And I will remember the formal clarity of my mind, beyond thinking or choosing now, for I had made my choice, as I wrenched the steering wheel to the right and slapped my foot against the brake pedal, and I wasn't the driver anymore, so I hunched my shoulders and ducked my head, as if the bus were a huge wave about to break over me … [and] the children of my town—their wide-eyed faces and fragile bodies swirling and tumbling in a tangled mass as the bus went over and the sky tipped and veered away and the ground lurched brutally forward.

Russell Banks seems inexorably drawn in his fiction to the darker side of contemporary American life. Most recently, for instance, he's explored the horrific plight of Haitian refugees (among other matters) in Continental Drift, and the tormented psyche of a self-destructive small-town policeman in Affliction. Now a schoolbus catastrophe! Yet the characters of Banks's new novel are rendered with such clear-eyed affection, the central tragedy handled with such unsentimental artistry, the wonderfully named mountain hamlet of Sam Dent described in such precise (and often very funny) detail, that The Sweet Hereafter is not only Banks's most accomplished book to date, but his most accessible and, ultimately, affirmative.

Structurally, the novel is narrated from the successive viewpoints of three townspersons and an out-of-town negligence lawyer. Billy Ansel, who picks up the story where Dolores Driscoll leaves off, has lost twins in the accident. In his implacable anger and stubbornness, Billy reminds me of a much more mentally intact and understandable Wade Whitehouse, the dangerously unstable lawman in Affliction. Yet somehow Billy has the resilience to endure his terrible ordeal (he's already lost his wife to cancer) and the eloquence to convey, as well as anyone can, what he and the town have suffered. More than anyone else in Sam Dent, Billy Ansel is aware of how the accident has altered the town and its residents forever. “From then on we were simply different people,” he concludes at the end of his account. “Not new people; different.”

When the divorced, constitutionally outraged and oddly likable New York City lawyer Mitchell Stephens arrives in Sam Dent, Billy wants no part of him or his whopping big lawsuits against the state and town for various safety violations. But just beneath his veneer of big-city cynicism, Stephens is an idealist with a mission as relentless as a three-day Adirondack blizzard. His determination to prove that “There are no accidents” drives the plot of the book forward to its climax in one of the most unpredictable and dramatic court scenes in contemporary fiction.

Courtroom depositions, negligence suits, the color of a winter dawn behind high northern peaks; models and makes of cars, the ineffable rural mystique of demolition derbies and county fairs; what men talk about in a backwoods bar; what kids talk about while they're waiting for the schoolbus—Russell Banks knows everything worth knowing about all these and much, much more. Only twice, in my opinion, does he introduce extraneous material. Although it's perfectly believable that Mitchell Stephens's runaway daughter may have AIDS and that Nichole Burnell may have been subjected to childhood sexual abuse, The Sweet Hereafter, like a lovely and mature Adirondack birch tree, is more noteworthy for its grace and economical elegance than for its bulk. The theme of the lost children is powerful enough to carry the story.

Outstanding novels—and The Sweet Hereafter is the most outstanding American novel I've read since Joyce Carol Oates's Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart and John Updike's Rabbit at Rest—don't, thank heaven, always have obvious points or messages. Like Oates and Updike at their best, however, Russell Banks is a strictly realistic writer with a remarkably comprehensive and sympathetic vision of the human condition and its hardest realities. Banks's vision of these realities in The Sweet Hereafter is at once sad and ennobling. The novel is a hard-won affirmation of mankind's potential for dignity in the face of just about the worst life has to offer.

Jeff Danziger (review date 24 September 1991)

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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.

The story is told by four people: Dolores Driscoll, a school-bus driver in a small town; Billy Ansel, father of two of the children on the bus; Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer; and Nichole Burnell, a student. In the accident on which the story is centered, Ansel loses his children and Nichole is paralyzed. Dolores survives the accident—the plunge of the bus through the guardrail and-into the water-filled quarry—and then tries to survive survival. Mitchell Stephens becomes the attorney for the group of parents who mount a lawsuit.

As in Banks's Affliction, the events take place in a small town—a small, unlovely stretch of road in upstate New York somewhere north of Albany. Banks has worked hard to understand this place. It is a place where life clings to highways, a place of short summers, long winters, and borderline poverty that never quite qualifies for official recognition. Good, unassuming people such as Dolores Driscoll work at what there is to do in the fragile economy.

Driscoll's accident, after years of driving children safely through the worst of northern New York winters, is an event of undeservedly cruel caprice. She has, through the years, earned the affection of the town. The accident ruins her life and forces the townspeople—most of whom are unaccustomed to deep thinking—to weigh their living options against their losses. Into the middle of this conflict comes the lawyer, Stephens, who is portrayed as a fair and considerate man, but driven by an internal anger to assign blame and liability. Practicing law, he says, is “like a discipline; it organizes and controls us; probably keeps us from being homicidal.” He offers a promise of action to the townspeople who are stunned into helplessness.

In his explanation there is fault and remedy; the guardrail was too weak, the road hadn't been plowed, the quarry hadn't been drained. But the rumble you hear growing behind Banks's story is the dispute between the weak majority and the strong minority over his basic promise that there is a remedy for their loss.

The book hinges on the maddening nature of inexplicable tragedy and tragedy's quivering aftermath. Stephens offers the protection of an explanation, something to wrap around oneself to ward off the cold winds of the unknown. For some of the townspeople this is worth more than the money they might gain from the lawsuit. But not for all.

It's left to the most unlikely of the victims to realize that blame can't be affixed to nature's caprice, not if one wants to continue to live sanely. Part of the explanation is that there is no explanation, and in most cases you're better off not equating life with money. The book closes on a note of forgiveness generated by those who must forgive Dolores Driscoll and, with an odd twist, by Driscoll herself, since she has to forgive those who have forgiven her.

Banks is making the best literary use of small northern American town life of any working writer these days, and he gets far sharper focus in the cold upstate New York air than any of the endless Southern writers do in the sultry haze below the Mason-Dixon line. He uses characters from the area—people who have grown up and remained there, usually living lives without advantages—and he has affection for such people.

Donna Rifkind (review date 17 April 1992)

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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 wintry, disintegrating New Hampshire town in which he himself was brought up. His father, an alcoholic plumber, was surely a model for the abusive father in Affliction. And the seedier parts of Florida, where Banks lived for a time, serve as settings for Continental Drift, and for some of the short fiction in Success Stories (1986).

Banks's latest novel, The Sweet Hereafter, has no apparent autobiographical basis. The story, which is based on several real-life news items, begins in a snowstorm with a full school bus descending a hill in the fictional town of Sam Dent, in upstate New York. When the bus swerves, smashing through a guard rail and plunging into a sandpit filled with icy water, fourteen of the thirty-four children in the bus are killed.

Once one knows that this novel is going to be about dead children—and Banks doesn't waste any time making this clear—it is very difficult to keep reading. Yet the author's sympathetic imagining of the events following the accident is so skilful and complex that one is compelled to continue.

His technique is to provide a series of testimonies by the following characters: the bus driver, a woman of sterling character named Dolores Driscoll who sustained no physical injuries; Billy Ansel, the father of two of the dead children; Mitchell Stephens, a slick New York City lawyer looking for a lawsuit; and one of the survivors, a beautiful fourteen-year-old cheerleader named Nichole Burnell whom the accident has left paralysed and wheelchair-bound.

The point of these testimonies is not to display discrepancies in shifting points of view. In fact, Banks's motive here is just the opposite. Each character takes up the action where the previous one left off, avoiding both corroboration and argument; the result is to make everyone appear more and more alone in their grief. “A town needs its children, just as much and in the same ways a family does”, says Dolores Driscoll. “It comes undone without them, turns a community into a windblown scattering of isolated individuals.”

This is precisely what happens in the months following the tragedy: marriages break apart, friends turn against each other, respected citizens retreat into perpetual drunkenness. As one of these, the former local hero Billy Ansel, comments: “it was as if we, too, had died when the bus went over the embankment and tumbled down into the frozen water-filled sandpit, and now we were lodged temporarily into a kind of purgatory, waiting to be moved to wherever the other dead ones had gone.”

No healing or redemption seems possible here, partly because the town has no one to blame. Dolores, who had been driving the bus safely and responsibly for twenty years, is more or less beyond reproach (though some refuse to see it that way), and her anguish over the event leaves permanent emotional scars. The New York lawyer, after stirring up some initial support for a lawsuit, finally goes away disappointed, for the hard truth is that this catastrophe was villainless: it was a cruelly whimsical event, beyond control.

This fact, and Banks's subtle handling of it, are what lift the novel up out of ordinary gritty realism toward something approaching the sublime. After the bus crash, there are two communities in the town of Sam Dent, as Dolores notes at the novel's end: “All of us—Nichole, I, the children who survived the accident, and the children who did not—it was as if we were the citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in a sweet hereafter, and no matter how the people of Sam Dent treated us, whether they memorialized us or despised us, whether they cheered for our destruction or applauded our victory over adversity, they did it to meet their needs, not ours.”

The book's final image, of a county fair seen from a distance, manages to unite these two sets of citizens in a heart-stopping passage, one that reaches for the same painful beauty as the end of Joyce's “The Dead” or parts of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. It is Russell Banks's last, best word on the subject: that not even art may be able to explain or redeem the unspeakable event that wrecked this town, but it can at least try.

James Finn Cotter (review date 2 May 1992)

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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 cold climate. Lonely lives turn inward and winter locks in spring.

Banks, the author of ten other books including Continental Drift and Affliction, describes the barren but majestic landscape of mountains and forests with a painter's eye and captures the painful yet noble lives of the townspeople with a storyteller's art. Scenes on the snow-covered highway where the accident occurs, desolate homes and motel rooms, garage backlots, bars and the demolition derby stands where the final confrontation takes place print themselves on the mind like scenes from a film.

Banks also gets under his characters' skins and into their hearts and heads. Four of them narrate the tragedy and the events of the following year: Dolores Driscoll, the busdriver whose sturdy self-reliance is shaken but not shattered by the crash; Billy Ansel, a Vietnam veteran who lost his wife four years before and who watches his twin children die in the accident; Mitchell Stephens, a New York lawyer who originates a negligence suit on behalf of the victims not for money but for revenge against a system of government he despises, and Nichole Burnell, a popular teenager who survives the crash but remains permanently crippled.

The way the stories of these four characters crisscross and interconnect is skillful, fascinating in its details and challenging to the reader. The midnight conversation between Ansel and Stephens, for example, in front of the wrecked shell of the abandoned yellow bus is exactly the same in both their accounts but charged with opposite emotions. The father's haunted heart and the lawyer's coolly observant mind completely change the sense of the words exchanged. Both men are themselves, bound by contrasting experiences and moral values.

Banks creates a community's consciousness in the face of crisis from the mournful funerals to the crazy escapism of a demolition derby. Ansel sees the bus as “a beast that had killed our children and then in turn been slain by the villagers.” Dolores's husband Abbot, a stroke victim who has himself faced death, speaks in oracles translated by his wife. “Blame creates comprehension,” he observes, summing up the paradox that Sam Dent's residents and the book's readers must learn to resolve. “No one can raise the dead” becomes another refrain. But the survivors in whom the dead live in real memory make up a “sweet hereafter” of “shared aloneness” that transcends death.

This is a powerful novel in its relentless quest to plumb the mystery of tragedy as it affects individuals and communities. None of the narrators turns to religion for answers: none finds consolation in conventional faith. Some others do find solace in church, but they appear to be escaping the tragedy rather than confronting it. Yet the quest for meaning rejects materialism and money as offering nothing but dissension and despair. As the title implies, those who died or survived are “citizens of a wholly different town.” At the end, death is no more: It cannot touch those who now share the terrible loss and the new life it bestows. The story itself is its own bittersweet hereafter.

Moral ambiguities play an important part in the development and resolution of the plot. Is a lie superior to the truth? Do ends justify means? The author works out his dilemmas through character and circumstance, weaving a novelist's design with reasonable realism and skill. Not every reader will agree with the way these moral threads are woven or with the pattern that results, but anyone who picks up this novel will be a wiser person when he/she puts it down. It stays in the memory long after.

Richard Eder (review date 21 May 1995)

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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.

“Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished,” Mark Twain wrote at the start of his masterpiece. It's not that Huck's and Jim's story lacks sharp observations upon the oddities and horrors of life in the South before the Civil War. Of course it has morals; but for us to be free to sense Huck's own buoyant and picaresque freedom, it is necessary that we are instructed not to look for them. The morals arise imperceptibly from the adventures; they are in Huck's learning, not in his preaching. And when he does attempt a moral, instead of dropping from his lips it curls upward along with the smoke from his corncob.

Banks' Chappie, a 14-year-old Upstate New Yorker, runs away from his abusive stepfather, takes refuge with his wise-guy buddy Russ and a posse of bikers, escapes from a fire but is thought dead, shares a bucolic life with an old Rastafarian in a burned-out bus—a raft, of sorts—and ends up as the old man's disciple in some seriously awful schemes in Jamaica. He uses a Huck Finn-like first person to recount his adventures and speculate about them. The book's first paragraph, in fact, is an ingenious variation in contemporary youngster-talk upon Huck's own prefatory apologia.

Like Huck, Chappie is an innocent despite his scabrous present-day version of 19th-Century youthful rascality (smoking pot instead of tobacco, and dealing it as well; stealing hundreds of dollars at a time instead of “borrowing” this and that; having sex with a woman as a way of getting back at her villainous lover). The difference is that he keeps telling us so. His high-mindedness is not something we notice but something he draws our attention to. He is staunchly for the outcasts—his Rastafarian mentor, an abused and abandoned little girl, a violent but decent biker—but his partisanship has an insinuating quality that seems to hustle us into uplift.

Author of the powerful Continental Drift and the even better The Sweet Hereafter, Banks writes some excellent individual scenes in Rule of the Bone. There is the artfully managed sick horror when Chappie, still partly a child, comes home after his adventures with the bikers, the fire and a free-and-easy few weeks with Russ (his Tom Sawyer) in a boarded-up summer house. Perhaps he can stay; his stepfather, though drunk, greets him affectionately. Then he tries to sodomize him.

There is Chappie's convalescence afterward in the burnt-out school bus—the same one whose fatal wreck provides the devastation in The Sweet Hereafter—where I-man, the Rastafarian, squats. A former migrant worker from Jamaica, I-man cultivates a vegetable garden liberally planted in ganja, cooks Jamaican stews, keeps his Rastafarian observances, and gradually heals the stricken Chappie with his example of tenderness and anarchic independence.

Eventually I-man (his patois, beautifully rendered, uses “I” and shuns “me”) decides to return to Jamaica. “Up to you, Bone,” he replies when Chappie—who has renamed himself after having two crossed bones tattooed on his arm—wonders whether to go too. It is a guru's mantra; a phrase that leads the boy through the ordeals he will encounter.

In Jamaica he works in a Rastafarian commune where I-man has legendary status as a former companion of the late Bob Marley and other big Rastas. The main activity, of which I-man takes businesslike charge, is growing, processing and distributing kilo bricks of ganja. Some goes to tourists in Montego Bay; most is loaded onto planes owned by a white drug syndicate and flown to the United States.

One member of the syndicate, it turns out, is Bone's real father, who had run off to Jamaica years before, set up as a doctor and moved in with Evening Star. A blonde, ex-hippie heiress, she lives in a hilltop mansion where she gives nonstop parties, lavish with drink, drugs and sex, for American women past their prime but not their purses, and handsome Jamaican studs.

Bone is welcomed affectionately; for a while he thinks he may be able to get off the “raft,” his picaresque life with I-man. But just as the strait-laced “civilizing” of Tom's kindly Aunt Polly was too much for Huck, the degenerate civilizing of the differently kindly Evening Star is too much for Bone. And when I-man is murdered by the syndicate over a payment dispute—white society is as lethal to him as it was to Jim, the ex-slave—Bone lights out for the territory.

Well, not quite; and the difference marks the degree to which Banks miscalculates his contemporary Huckleberry Finn. Instead of Huck's laconic lighting-out phrase, Bone delivers a lush farewell. Aboard the boat on which he works passage out to his future, he looks up at the night sky. He makes up his own constellations: one for I-man; one for his biker friend who died searching the burning building where he thought Bone was trapped; and one for the abused child whom Bone stole from her abuser.

“For the rest of my life,” he says, “no matter where on the planet earth I went and no matter how scared or confused I got, I could wait until dark and look up into the night sky and see my three friends again and my heart would swell with love of them and make me strong and clear-headed.”

It takes a voice to make a fictional character. It takes a very special and hard-to-achieve voice to make a first-person fictional character. And it takes something close to a miracle to achieve a first-person voice for a 14-year-old that will do vital and nuanced justice not only to the boy but to the age-old world he moves through. Bone's voice performs excellently, and the story it tells is varied and interesting for the most part, and sometimes more than that. But it is essentially a performance; one that flattens out, summoning applause more than it arouses it.

Ann Hulbert (review date 29 May 1995)

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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 cool and non-committal. That Chappie Dorset, a high-school dropout from a small town in the Adirondacks, is free of this tic of teenage dialect is a key to his lineage, and thus to the tradition that The Rule of the Bone aspires to. Banks is aiming higher than an adolescent classic in the mold of Catcher in the Rye, for and about the disaffected young in an age of indulgence. (Holden Caulfield would have run “like” into the ground if he'd had the chance.) He intends an indictment of a decaying and divided era, which is meant to be heard by adults. And he has The American Classic in mind. Chappie Dorset's literary antecedent is Huck Finn, the 14-year-old witness with an utterly original voice.

Huck's voice, though inimitable, is a model in two useful ways. It is self-aware without being self-conscious, and it is persuasive whether delivering clear-eyed testimony or indulging in imaginative embroidery. His form of delivery, in other words, has nothing to do with diffidence. Huck's unapologetic dead-pan style depends instead on qualities often at low ebb in adolescence: self-confidence and independence, resources that abandoned boys are quickly driven to develop. Like Huck and, completely unlike the blasé Holden, Chappie is a social outcast whose whole heart is in his account of the deformed world in which he finds himself; he isn't striking world-weary poses. In fact, Chappie (who soon adopts the more oracular moniker of Bone) sometimes gets away with a declamatory note that Huck never could, for Banks doesn't mind readers who are tempted by what Twain, in his prefatory “Notice,” expressly warned his audience against: the search for motive, moral and plot in the conscience-pricking story told by a haunted young rustic.

Banks has never been reticent about the motive behind his fiction. He laid out his credo most explicitly at the close of Continental Drift (1985), where he announced that “good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives—no, especially wholly invented lives—deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself.” Banks doesn't claim that fiction conveys factual truth that can change anything. Though he has made it his mission to portray the gritty particulars of existence on the peripheries (blue-collar towns in the rural Northeast, enclaves of new arrivals and foreign immigrants in Florida, villages on Caribbean islands), he is under no illusion that mere reportage will set anyone free. The liberating force lies instead in the feelings of empathy that inspire a writer to create the “facts” of his fiction, and in the sympathy that fiction in turn inspires in readers. Banks has emphasized an almost primitive notion of storytelling as exorcism, for the teller and for the listener. And he has repeatedly set himself the challenge of letting comparatively untutored characters have their say.

Chappie fits naturally into Banks's succession of storytellers, an heir apparent. For with him and his saga, the moral underlying Banks's work up to now asserts itself with a new force. The child is father of the man: that has been the very unromantic lesson that almost all of his novels and stories, in different bleak ways, have illustrated. From the start Banks has distinguished himself as a family chronicler of an uncozy kind. In cramped and angry domesticity he finds grim auguries of personal and national destiny. Shades of the prison-house close all too soon on growing boys (and more rarely, girls), and entrapped men and women are the result in The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Affliction (1989), Success Stories (1986) and Continental Drift, to mention just the second harvest of Banks's prolific two-decade career. A cycle of paternal rage and abuse is at work, producing generation after generation of fathers who harbor bruised boys within, ready to strike back. In Continental Drift, Bob Dubois faces up to the disheartening drama of arrested development that dominates Banks's fiction:

For years, Bob was one of those people who believed that there are two kinds of people, children and adults, and that they are like two different species. Then, when he himself became an adult and learned that the child in him had not only refused to die or disappear, but in fact seemed to be refusing to let the adult have his way, and when he saw that was true not only of him but of everyone else he knew as well—his wife, his brother, his friends, even his own mother and father—Bob reluctantly, sadly, with increasing loneliness, came to believe that there are no such things as adults after all, only children who try and usually fail to imitate adults. People are more or less adult-like, that's all.

Until now Banks has focused on grown-ups, and proved himself an expert on the myopic innocence that maturity can cling to. His characters are desperate dreamers. His typical plot turns on their refusal to accept what feels like frustratingly little control over their lives, especially when the world beckons with bigger promises. When they succumb to those promises, they discover the world won't make good on them, and they are left feeling even more powerless. Not surprisingly, one thing over which they have a frighteningly frail grasp is their children, as Banks pointedly dramatized by making a school bus accident the crux of his previous novel, The Sweet Hereafter.

In what now looks like a warm-up for Chappie's epic monologue, Banks had 14-year-old Nichole Burnell, a lucky survivor of the accident, narrate one of the five sections of the book. Her story, and The Sweet Hereafter as a whole, are the ominous calm before the storm of The Rule of the Bone. Nichole is the abused daughter who buries her pain in high performance (she's the junior-high-school salutatorian). And in a novel that is built not on action (the tragedy has already happened when the book opens) but on reactions, her response to the event helps give the shattered Adirondack town at least some peace. Here the wise disillusionment of children—the complement, in Banks's world, to the childish delusions of adults—is clearly on the way to becoming his main subject.

In The Rule of the Bone Banks gives the entire story over to a child, and the result is brutally, often fantastically, picaresque. Twain threatened shooting as the penalty for anyone looking for plot in his novel: Chappie, at nearly every turn in his adventures, is either dodging or firing bullets. He is the antithesis of Nichole—a wounded boy who drops out of his family, his town, his country and finally out of the category of run-of-the-mill delinquent to which he (with help from others) has consigned himself. For Bone, like Huck before him, is by no means unregenerate. His recounting of high drama among a crowd of dead-beats, and a few true companions, gives his good soul and honest imagination a chance to prove themselves.

Here, as before, Banks sees to it that his provincial portrait has a panoramic sweep, a continental drift. The Rule of the Bone is another parable about lost American innocence. And for the most part Banks's confidence again pays off, thanks not least to his gift for psychological portrayal of a notoriously difficult kind: he maps the inner life of characters who are commonly assumed not to be introspective or articulate. He manages to make Chappie a hapless boy and yet also an acute narrator of a series of exploits that themselves seem both accidental and part of a literary pattern. As each chapter of Bone's misadventure unfolds, the new predicament he finds himself in seems nightmarishly contingent—the realistic travails of a down-and-out delinquent. But taken together, the episodes strain credulity as a rough-hewn memoir, as they are meant to. Bone's monologue assumes very symmetrical and symbolic shape, and very consciously strikes echoes of Twain (and of Banks's own previous work) as it proceeds.

Chappie, who recounts his year-long odyssey in retrospect, starts out, like Huck, by emphasizing a smoking habit that gets him into trouble at home. For Chappie, the weed is marijuana. He doesn't think twice about ransacking his house when he finds himself penniless and eager to get high, for life with his stepfather and mother has been edgy for some time. Chappie, with his nose-rings and mohawk haircut, is perfectly willing to take some blame for bad relations in a passage that conveys the matter-of-fact, fair-minded tone of his voice:

It was getting toward the end of summer school and I knew I was going to flunk at least two out of the three courses that I needed to pass just to get out of eighth grade which was going to make my mom crazy and deeply piss off my stepdad who already had his own secret reasons for disliking me but I don't want to talk about that now.

As that typically run-on sentence suggests, with its hint of abuse, Chappie also feels his parents have plenty to answer for. When he pawns his mother's coin collection to buy dope, and then assaults his stepfather when his parents discover the theft, the uneasy truce between generations is over. Banks captures the mix of defiance and confusion, pride and remorse, with which Chappie leaves home to join his friend Russ—a fast-talker of the Tom Sawyer variety—who has been living with a band of bikers.

The first in what is to be a succession of parodic “families,” the motorcycle gang marks one step down the road of criminal marginality (the bikers deal drugs and steal). Chappie evokes life in their company with what comes to be his characteristically dark comic flair: he wryly compares them to dogs, he being “the ultimate little dog and it was all I could do to keep from pissing down my own leg.” Chappie's underground exploits are a distorted mirror of life above ground, and the criticism of callous and irresponsible America they convey is stark. But Banks consistently gives the messages an ironic twist, rescuing them from sanctimony. At one point, moved by sympathy, Chappie rescues a small girl from the clutches of a pervert who evidently bought her—only to talk himself into returning her to the crackhead mother who sold her. Moved by resentment at another point, he trashes the fancy summer house of some rich people—only to confront the flagrant indulgence of his own act. Chappie, in his role as social conscience, is suitably confused.

With a sure sense of pacing, Banks periodically takes a break from the action and sends Chappie to hide out in an abandoned school bus in the woods, which turns out to be the wreck from The Sweet Hereafter—Banks's version of Twain's raft. It serves at first as an image of hopelessness, when Chappie finds it inhabited by two drug addicts (who turn out to be Nichole Burnell's brothers), but it also becomes an emblem of hope. Just before he falls asleep one night, Chappie has a utopian vision of the bus, and the dream shows Banks working at perfect pitch. The passage has the specific pathos of a kid's comforting nighttime fantasy, and yet at the same time it's a more sweeping comment on the search for community, one of the novel's main themes:

It would be wicked cool to have a real bus, one that worked and all and fix it up inside like a home and drive it around the country your whole life, stopping whenever you felt like and making a little money off a job for a while and if you got restless just taking off again. You could have friends and family with you some of the time and be alone some of the time but basically and this would be the best thing, you'd be in complete charge of your life like those old pioneers in their covered wagons.

Like others in the growing company of writers who have been reviving the American tradition of backwoods yarn-spinning, Banks clearly finds it a liberating return to naturalistic story-telling. It offers a respite from minimalism that needn't mean staid narrative conformism. In fact (as Carolyn Chute, Jayne Anne Phillips and others have shown) it invites Gothic character exaggeration, surreal scene-making, violent drama and often a dose of primitive spiritualism. Banks stands out as knowing how to overdo to just the right degree, and throughout the first half of the novel he leavens thematic sobriety with lively theatrics. It's when he introduces his brand of exotic spiritualism in the middle of the book that his remarkably agile touch threatens to get heavy.

Bone meets up with a ganja-growing illegal immigrant from Jamaica, I-Man, a Rastafarian dedicated to liberating the slave within. Chappie's transformation from underdog outlaw to idealized outlaw, under the tutelage of this Jim figure for the '90s, is the drama of the rest of the book. It's a quest that begins with disillusioned hopelessness in America, when Bone's stepfather stands in the way of an attempted reconciliation with the family. The journey ends with unillusioned hope in Jamaica, where Bone finds his real father, a decadent cocaine addict. Taking stock of him and of himself, Bone gathers strength to embark on his own independent future.

Such an odyssey of vindication marks a departure for Banks, whose specialty has been men who can't reverse, but can only accelerate, their downward course. Here he is at his characteristic best as he explores the combustible mix of fear, frustration and passionate feeling that makes life at home and in Jamaica dangerous, sometimes in surprisingly similar ways. In Banks's America, divisions have never been deeper. And the postcolonial menace of Jamaica, filtered through Bone's eyes, is as ominous as it has ever been in Banks's fiction. Racial troubles and family strains, which he labored hard to link in Continental Drift, here overlap more easily; homelessness in The Rule of the Bone has a long history.

But it looks as though Hollywood has edged out Huck as the inspiration at several key moments in Bone's saga. Well before a redemptive ending comes into view, the novel has beckoned as prime film material: an action-packed adventure, full of visual potential, with a huge target market. But with the formulaic scripting of its turning point and its concluding scene, The Rule of the Bone risks begging for the screen a little too obviously. Banks can't resist an Oprah-style trauma to send Bone off to Jamaica, and a Disney scene of transcendence to prepare him for his return to America.

Bone, as we have been alerted at the start and are informed in graphic detail in the middle of the book, has been sexually abused by his stepfather—who threatens him again, a last straw that helps propel Bone to Jamaica. Banks can't be accused of jumping on the child-abuse bandwagon; after all, the theme has been, more and less subtly, at the heart of his work for a long time. But given the focus on paternal molestation here, and given the recent surge in its popularity as a plot device (it threatens to become the contemporary equivalent of the classic fatal illness ploy), Banks faces higher hurdles in pulling it off. Child abuse, once it has been overused as a sensational revelation, does more than lose its shock value; it becomes a sentimental formula.

For to presume that the abuse of children is a widespread reality rather than a fantasy, as Freud ultimately concluded it was, has the paradoxical effect of restoring a very romantic idea: the utter dependence and purity of children. When abuse is given literary center stage as a motivation or explanation for events, or even alluded to in the background, it has a way of shifting the light in the coming-of-age novel: young characters are flattened into passive victims, and maturation begins to look more like a melodrama about corruption than like an awakening to a complicated world. It's exactly this kind of reduction that Banks capably skirts before the scarring secret is out. After, though he works hard to keep roguish Chappie from becoming merely a wronged innocent, the revelation has inevitably introduced a shallower therapeutic perspective.

The end of The Rule of the Bone brings another brush with bathos. The novel closes with Bone on his way back from Jamaica, lying at night on the deck of The Belinda Blue, the boat that meant death for illegal Haitian refugees in Continental Drift but that will mean a new life for Bone in his own country. After the visions he has had during the Rastafarian rites of self-discovery I-Man has led him through, the closing revelation Bone describes is almost bound to be an anticlimax. Still, his resort to clichéd inspirationalism comes as a jolt. Bone gazes up at the stars, and finds in them constellations of the figures who have meant most to him: the biker who once tried to save him, “the sign of the bad boy with the brave heart”; the girl whom he tried to save, “the sign of the rejected child”; and I-Man, “the shape of a lion's head with a crown, the constellation Lion-I, the sign of the open mind.”

It's disorienting to hear in this the cloying strains of The Lion King, the blockbuster paeon to family values in a time of absent fathers and cultural blight. (“The great kings of the past look down on us from these stars. They will always be there to guide you. …”) Banks's recurrent subject—the struggle to take one's fruitful place “in the circle of life” rather than continue a generational cycle of destruction—is not any less rich for being hugely, and often banally, popular. It is, though, that much harder to sustain at a vigorous and subtle imaginative level. What is striking is how successfully daring Banks has managed to be with his vernacular hero. The triteness at the end, while Chappie lets the credits roll, shouldn't drown out the story that has come before, which has followed the energetic and idiosyncratic rules of Bone.

Penelope Mesic (review date 11 June 1995)

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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, Russell Banks has chosen a resourceful, undersized, 14-year-old boy to serve as narrator and hero of his latest novel, a brilliantly funny and heartfelt work called Rule of the Bone. Named Chapman, nicknamed “Chappie,” later “Bone,” the boy is good-natured, shrewd and more than a little screwed up, but—and this is Banks' great accomplishment—believably young, with all the raw freshness, resiliency and sense of adventure that implies.

He also has a deadpan naivete reminiscent of Huck Finn's, which allows him to deliver devastating judgments while apparently unaware that he has done so. His mother, who drinks too much, is affectionate but nothing like as sharp as Chappie, although his love for her prevents him from saying so. She has “a cheesy job as a bookkeeper at the hospital.” His stepfather, sarcastic with a mean streak, “thinks I'm a total loser because his idea of a real man is Arnold Schwarzenegger or General Schwarzkopf or anybody with a name with Schwarz in it because he's basically a Nazi with a drinking problem plus a few others.” Here Chappie explains why he thinks his grandmother is self-centered: “On my thirteenth birthday my mom had a special family dinner and Grandma when she sat down at the table took my hand in hers and mother who'll be 75 in September?”

It is evident that Chappie's bond with his family is frayed to the breaking point, and what he gets from them in time, attention and love is not enough for a child to prosper. As the book begins, he is ditching school, staying with a friend and a bunch of bikers over a store called the Video Den. Like “lots of kids” he deals dope on a small scale. He also smokes dope, because “always high was better than low and those were my only two alternatives.”

Banks paints a devastating—and devastatingly funny—picture of Chappie's daily routine; that Chappie soon accepts the life as normal is what shocks us. Our dull adult sense of his danger is constant. His more accurate sense is that, around the bikers, who alternately play dumb sadistic jokes, use the kids as errand boys and treat them like mascots, he has to be “pretty alert.” But he recognizes the play-acting going on—that while they are tough, there's also a make-believe quality to their talk about guns, drugs, Harleys, tattoos and the “famous murderer” who was one biker's uncle. Privately Chappie comes to the same assessment the reader does, that the bikers are losers “who couldn't get real jobs.”

There's a wonderful sketch of a formidable biker called “Roundhouse,” who is “humongously fat and hasn't had a haircut since third grade.” He's so shaggy that “when he stood up you expected to see a tail,” Chappie tells us, adding that he used stolen credit cards for phone sex, but “whenever there were any real females around he plugged his headphones into Russ's box and nodded out.” The whimsicality of the description and the reference to third grade help us accept Chappie's conclusion: “Basically he was harmless.”

Other men he encounters, superficially less menacing, are more dangerous. At the mall there is a pockmarked individual with a droll style of speech who leads around a female child of 6 or 7 who appears to be drugged. Chappie senses evil, but his idea of what might be going on is authentically kidlike and cloudy. Any writer might bone up, so to speak, on the language and customs of the young, but here Banks does the far more difficult work of structuring the gaps in Chappie's knowledge that make the boy, despite himself, innocent.

Chappie has a foolish, generous impulse to somehow substitute himself for the younger child, and chatting with the man, lets himself be led toward the man's car. On the way they pass a window display being set up. “The mannequins are all in pieces with their arms and hands lying on the floor and some of them don't have any heads and the ones that do are bald. They have breasts and all but no nipples or pubic hair. It's like they're adults but they're really little kids … it looked like a dissecting room in a morgue or something. Definitely it was the grossest thing I'd ever seen, which is strange because I'd seen a lot of really gross things by then. … That's when I turned and started running.”

The boy's apparently stray words—nipples, pubic hair—build up an awareness of sex, the confusion of adult and child in this context sets off warning bells, and the theme of dismemberment is appalling. The way this association of ideas is created, resulting in a terror that Chappie scarcely understands, is masterly.

Throughout this work, we want for our hero what he wants for himself: someone to look out for him. What he encounters is a series of bad fathers—exploitative, violent, false. When help finally comes, it is in the guise, again reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn, of a black Rastafarian called “I-Man” who is cultivating vegetables and ganja in the weedy lot around an abandoned school bus.

No one who has read the The Sweet Hereafter, the Banks novel that preceded this one, can hear the words “school bus” unmoved—and yes, this bus is the rusting hulk of one that figured in a terrible crash. But in its present state, the wreck is a haven of sanity and health. Chappie, having survived adventures of increasing risk, including one that in another Mark Twain-like touch left him reading his own obituary, is now safe. He has someone whose mellow principles he can adopt.

We scarcely notice when our longing that the boy return home disappears. But we are very conscious of the moment when he realizes that neglect and displacement have somehow ripened into freedom. He is traveling with I-Man, crossing Lake Champlain on the first leg of what will become a voyage to Jamaica. “I remember thinking you live from moment to moment and the moments all flow into each other forwards and backwards and you almost never catch one like this that's separate from the rest. It felt like a precious diamond and I was holding it up to the sunlight between my thumb and forefinger.” That could be a metaphor for what Banks has done: pulled one adolescent from the drably dressed, drifting throng and found in his candor and freshness something like a diamond.

Phil Baker (review date 30 June 1995)

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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. Presumed dead in a fire (at which he wasn't actually present, although one of the bikers dies trying to save him), he begins a new life. He steals a car with his friend Russ and they take off to stay with a pair of spindly, smack-head brothers who don't smell too good and live in a crashed school bus. Russ has a biker tattoo to get rid of, so they go to the Art-O-Rama tattoo studio to get it covered with a black panther. And when Chappie keeps him company with some crossed bones on his own arm, the Bone is born, his adventures have only just started.

Russell Banks's very moral and somewhat sentimental novel [Rule of the Bone] is an exercise in “doing” a voice, revamping the picaresque narrator to make an MTV-generation Huckleberry Finn. Bone may be a mall-rat with a studded nose who uses expressions like “way” and “wuss”, but his concerns are perennial within the American canon. His retrospection into the state of his soul is squarely in the tradition of Protestant self-testimony (“Unbeknownst to me however I was developing a criminal mentality”), as is his concern with the difference between crime and sin:

Stealing is like only a crime but betrayal of a friend is a sin. It's like a crime is an act that when you've committed one the act is over and you haven't changed inside. But when you commit a sin it's like you create a condition that you have to live in.

Bone shows his innate decency when he encounters a doped seven-year-old named “Froggy” in company with Buster Brown, “the psycho porn king of Plattsburgh who kept little kids on junk”. With his English accent and his fruitily Dickensian spiel, Buster is a memorable character. Despite his big soft nose and pocky skin and “thin black strands of hair combed sideways over his head like a bar code”, he is a convincingly charismatic manipulator:

When he talked he looked right at me and made me feel like there was this spotlight on me and I was standing in the middle of a stage and anything I said would be listened to with total respect … I felt like I was baking in the sun with all the attention.

More than that, “he was so smart he made you feel smart too instead of stupid like smart people usually make you feel”. Bone intends to save Froggy by substituting himself as “protégé”, but when he sees dismantled mannequins in a shop window (evidently looking like Cindy Sherman's sex-doll artworks: “it was the grossest thing I'd ever seen”), he suddenly feels the ugliness of Buster's game and escapes, taking Froggy with him.

With Froggy, whose real name is Rose, Bone returns to the crashed bus, now occupied by a Rasta named I-Man. They share a spliff; “and before the night was gone I knew that I had met the man who would become by best friend.” Unlike the bullies, rule-makers and manipulators Bone has met so far, I-Man's advice is “Up to you, Bone”. The three of them live happily surrounded by plants: “It was like the Garden of Eden.” They eat healthily too, with food like in the “olden pioneer days” that Bone has already yearned for: “But basically and this would be the best thing, you'd be in complete charge of your life like those old pioneers in their covered wagons.” In many respects, this is familiar stuff, like I-Man's creed that every honest man is an outlaw, and his larger role in the book, offering salvation through rapprochement with blackness. Bone becomes apprenticed to I-Man's Rastafarian wisdom and goes to live in Jamaica, becoming a kind of make-believe black.

Bone's adventures are still far from over: while in Jamaica, he recognizes his real father (whom he once saw in a photograph) doing a drug deal with I-Man. By the end of the book—having just turned fifteen—he has unwittingly brought disaster on everyone he has loved. But he has achieved the Rule of the Bone, which is total freedom and autonomy guided by the spirit of I-Man. He has even made his own mythic universe, with star constellations named in memory of dead friends: the biker, Rose and I-Man himself.

Throughout the book, Bone's sharp and funny comments bring an unfooled, Holden Caulfield-ish distaste to white self-loathing, and Banks offers wry, lacerating descriptions of blue-collar white America, whether in the mall, at Christmas, or on package tours. He is more convincing on the problem than the solution, combining superb details with a wilful naivety of vision. None the less, he gives an impressive new vitality to any number of old formulas in this unfailingly readable novel. Rule of the Bone is probably more commercial than his previous work and it seems set to have backpack currency with people of Bone's age and above.

Brian Morton (review date 7 July 1995)

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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 “Bone”, it's harder to get away from than a Big Issue ambush. Even allowing for the wonderful Continental Drift, this [Rule of the Bone] is the book that promotes Banks to the premier division of US novelists. In it, Banks seems aware that he is inscribing himself into a long tradition.

With his nose-rings, Mohican and promising weed habit, Chappie makes Holden Caulfield sound like John-Boy Walton, and Huck Finn a virtual Pollyanna. Chappie—Chapman—lives with a deflated mom and an abusive step-dad in trailer-park America. Lives, that is, until steadily mounting tensions push him to light out for the New Frontier—the Banks territory of the dispossessed. Chappie forages like a true mall-rat, hacks a living pushing dope to local kids, then to a bunch of bikers called the Adirondack Irons, whose chapter-house is shared by his sidekick Russ.

At this point, Chappie probably still plays Tom Sawyer to Russ' Huck, but the roles are quickly reversed. Tired of being the Irons' gofer, Russ decides to liberate his tithe of the gang's stolen VCRs. They get away with their lives only by virtue of having seemed to perish in the blaze that kills the bikers' leader. Trial by fire, as subsequently by the other elements, cuts Chappie free of most of his remaining ties. A last, semi-sentimental return home is one of the few false notes Banks strikes—an awkward bit of structure that interrupts the book's impeccable logic.

The only other one is an unnecessary and ambiguous reprise of the book's most chilling episode, an encounter with the pornographer Buster Brown and his child victim, semi-catatonic Froggy the Gremlin. Chappie stalks them, and flirts with Brown, even agreeing to a “screen test”. His escape should have been the last word, but Banks has Chappie meet up with the pair again, rescue Froggy and send her home.

By this stage, Russ has wimped out and returned to his mother and Chappie has fallen in with an elderly Rasta called I-Man, who becomes his Chingachgook and almost father. I-Man has the home-itch for Jamaica and so Chappie sinks the remains of Buster's tainted cash in a hypnotic excursion to the Caribbean, to the ganja fields, and the source of his own alienation. This is where Banks eases in to the bone, and to the rule of the bone.

Early in their flight, Chappie had joined Russ in a tattoo parlour and acquired the tattoo that was to give him a road name. Attracted to a pirate symbol, he is put off by the skull, and has the tattooist Art badge him with just a pair of crossed bones. Chappie becomes Bone.

This is a complex symbol, as deliberately wrought as Chappie's slow abandonment of his punked, ironic Red Indian haircut. Denying the skull is both a recognition of his fear of death, and a beginning to his capacity to live fully. I-Man becomes his teacher, but also tutors him in a kind of suspension of consciousness (and not just in the obvious way) which the missing skull also symbolised. Like Holden, like Huck to a different degree, Chappie is trapped by his own partial awareness of things, his own misgivings and denials (the revelation of his stepfather's sexual abuse is all the more shocking for being delayed).

Where the “rescue” of Rose does function positively is that it shows him teeter between awarenesses of himself and his relationship with others; formerly, only the family cat engaged him wholly. The rule of the bone teaches him to live by a set of instincts older than any of them, except perhaps I-Man. As Bone, he becomes for the first time a native American.

Ed Peaco (review date fall 1995)

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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 whom he discovers familial love. Stretches for sure, but refreshing so far. Bone is the victim of still more social ills, enough to keep counselors and talk-show hosts busy for the rest of their lives: alcoholic mother, absent father, abusive stepfather, child-porn predator, dangerous friends, terrible luck, and wretched judgment. But he hardly ever whines. Instead, Bone endures and escapes, rattling through socioeconomic strata in convincingly madcap, picaresque sequences that lead to I-Man's ganja underworld in Jamaica. Bone not only helps propagate and market the product, he achieves through it a mystical-hallucinatory enlightenment to self-knowledge more powerful than any buzz ever attributed to a smoldering herb. But while hyperbole can be fun, manipulation usually is annoying. So my willingness to believe runs out as Bone bumps into his long-lost father in Montego Bay. In a touching ending in the shadow of the pileup of plot twists, Bone sails away, prospects as uncertain as ever, but his soul fortified by a little love. Like Huck Finn, Bone's slyly unsophisticated voice explores big questions like love, sex, crime, sin, race, class, and the fate of children in a fractured society. That voice, jabbering in slangs derived from metal, hip-hop, homelessness, and Rasta rap, creates a uniquely whacked-out yet profound linguistic experience, which is the main pleasure of the work.

Jerry Herron (essay date fall 1996)

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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 those not prone to physical expressions of feeling, there are the simulacral beguilements of going down by law, which prove irresistible to an ever increasing number of actionable citizens. A toll-free number (1-800-LAW-SUIT) now offers drive-by litigation twenty-four hours a day. Concomitant with this rambunctious turn in our national polity is an equally familiar tut-tutting over the proliferation of hate-filled “talk” on radio and television, not to mention its electoral reflex in the negative campaign advertisements of political candidates, from village constables and city councilmen to the highest officials in the land: a voice-over harangue to narrate our collective flight from civility. Protestations to the contrary, however, the ads work and the shows get watched or listened to by millions of people. We're mad as hell, to paraphrase Paddy Chayefsky's memorable line, but we're far from unwilling to take it anymore. In truth, “it”—being mad—is about the only state that Americans are collectively willing to respect in each other.

But why should this be so? Why—now that we've won the Cold War and cast off the restrictive shackles of Modernism (thanks to the myriad Post-it Notes of deconstruction, feminism, queer theory, etc.)—why should we still be so angry? The answer, I think, has to do with the pyrrhic utopia we have achieved, and with the effects of living in a permanently downsized America. The representative institutions of vernacular culture have been dismantled in favor of a privatized, couch-bound liberation that leaves nothing between here and hereafter, between the individual and what we formerly referred to as “the social,” except for the cable box and the remote control. “The metabolic rate of history is too fast for us to observe it,” Russell Banks has written in his exceptional and wonderful novel, Continental Drift:

It's as if, attending to the day-long life cycle of a single mayfly, we lose sight of the species and its fate. At the same time, the metabolic rate of geology is too slow for us to perceive it, so that, from birth to death, it seems to us who are caught in the beat of our own individual human hearts that everything happening on this planet is what happens to us, personally, privately, secretly.

America devolves now upon a radically diminished present: personal, private, secret. And the reason this makes us so inexplicably angry is that we lack any believable apparatus (of outmoded church, state, community, neighborhood, or art) to translate personal fear and frustration into what Raymond Williams has termed shared “structures of feeling.” We've seen through those representations to the truth beyond, which is that solitary anger is the only veritable currency of self-expression, the last thing we can trust as authentic.

At this precise point memory leaves off, because our self-authenticating anger is all about forgetfulness rather than recollection. “[E]ach new day,” as Banks says, “brings a surfeit of … news, blotting out the news of the day before … [so] we conclude here, too, that nothing has happened.” Surfeited with de-contextualized information, we languish Alzheimer's-like before the national screen, each of us locked within the privacy of a spectacular isolation. It's as if you've walked into a room to do something important, only to realize once you got there that you no longer remember what it was that motivated your errand in the first place, and it makes you angry. So here we all are, at the millennial climax of our century, having forgotten completely the conflicted, historical errand that dispatched us here. The only memory we share, nationally, is not a memory at all but a media-induced nostalgia for something that may never have been: the imaginary, implied then that makes now seem so improbably botched. This may be why Americans find it so hard to like themselves or each other: we lack the kind of recollections—fugitive, local, politically suspect, real—that are the source of compassion, forgiveness, and shared feeling. Instead, what we have is an acting out of frustrations the cause of which remains permanently and maddeningly obscured. And that is where these three recent, extraordinary books converge. …

Memory, or rather its loss, is the subject of Witold Rybczynski's latest book, City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World. Rybczynski, an architect by training, is the author of numerous justly praised books and articles, most notably Home (1986), The Most Beautiful House in the World (1989), and Waiting for the Weekend (1992). The Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, he begins City Life with this often-repeated question: “Why aren't our cities like that?”—with the that being a nostalgic, romantic projection of what American cities ought to be: they ought to be like Old World cities; they ought to be Paris. The implied and frequently angry corollary is that our cities, like ourselves, are failures to the degree that they differ from other people's cities. Rybczynski's response is that ours are not like theirs because we are not like them, although most people seem to have forgotten this fact (and lost the capacity to like what we have made). We are Americans and we have built according to our native needs, aspirations, mistakes, and accidents. “No, our cities are definitely not like Paris,” he concedes, “But then what are they like? And how did they get that way?” He answers these questions historically by dispatching the self-abnegating ignorance on which the diminishing comparison (us versus them, ours versus theirs) is founded.

We would be mistaken, however, to characterize City Life as an urban history, despite its containing a great volume of historical information and culturally “thick” description. Rybczynski's project is to write not as a comprehensive historian of cities but rather, in his characteristic fashion, as a historically informed and curious individual who is interested in pursuing the connection between national character and a uniquely American artifact—the city—it created.

Rybczynski proceeds by searching out paradigmatic examples to illustrate decisive moments in the development of American urbanism. The organization of this imminently likable essay (only 235 pages of text) is roughly chronological, beginning with the first cities Europeans built in the New World and ending, just as the city has, at the mall. He moves through the familiar sequence of American civic culture: pre-Columbian town building, European interventions, the Colonial era, western expansion, the City Beautiful, the modernist ascendancy of the skyscraper, the post-World War II boom and the dominance of suburbia, urban renewal in the 1950's and 1960's, and finally the eclipse of the traditional city and its potential reinterpretation. At each point, however, Rybczynski's aim is not to work toward some sort of abstract totality but to proceed narratively, more in the way of a storyteller than of a theoretician.

For instance, there is his crucial examination of the ascendancy of the Anglo-Dutch model of city building as opposed to the Continental: “the Continental model, dense, communal, and oriented to life in the square and in the street; and the Anglo-Dutch model, more spread out, more private, and socially focused on the family house.” In America, where land was inexpensive and where individuals could afford to own private houses, the latter model was taken to an extreme that became distinctively our own: “The American idea that cities could be made almost entirely of free-standing private houses with their own gardens was an original notion, at least in Western culture. … [I]t was an ideal that, against many odds, would never be completely abandoned.” This ideal of town building combined with a commercial dispersal of city culture (products, information, modes of behavior) to produce an urbanism distinctively American: “[T]he United States is the first example of a society in which the process of urbanization began, paradoxically, not by building towns, but by spreading an urban culture. … [T]here never was a sense of cities as precious repositories of civilization. Because urban culture spread so rapidly, it lost its tie to the city, at least in the public's perception.” This linkage of individual home ownership and a culturally dispersed urbanity constitutes Rybczynski's answer to the question about the uniqueness of American cities. Our cities were never like theirs because they were never intended to be.

Perhaps the only general weakness of the book is its odd lack of illustrations. Particularly for readers not already familiar with city plans and architectural styles, it would be helpful to see what is being talked about. This is especially true when it comes to the layout of streets and disposition of neighborhoods. As do most architects, Rybczynski tends to write primarily about the built environment and not so much about the people who inhabit it or their cultural dialogue with the city via literature, music, painting, and various forms of spontaneous “renewal”: homemade signs and wall art, impromptu reinhabitation, and the like. But these reservations are not intended to detract from the contribution Rybczynski makes to our understanding of the city—or, more accurately, our historical ignorance and general misunderstanding of the city, especially its current disposition: “Once we accept that our cities will not be like cities of the past, it will become possible to see what they might become. Combining lessons from the past with the present will not produce a unified city, but a combination of disparate elements, old and new, dense and diffuse, private and public.” Because we have forgotten where our cities came from, and how and why they got to be the way they are, it is hard for us to understand (let alone like) them now. We lapse into the angry, naïve blaming that characterizes much of what passes for intelligence in this very forgetful age—a blaming of ourselves, of the government, of “those people” who moved in and took over and ruined things for the rest of us.

This same urge to imagine an America beyond anger and blame is what motivates Russell Banks's latest novel, Rule of the Bone. In an amusing confluence of circumstances, [Witold] Rybczynski ends where Banks begins—literally, at the regional shopping mall in Plattsburgh, New York, where Rybczynski and his wife would go every few weeks when they wanted an urban alternative to their rural life at the Boat House, the building of which became the subject of The Most Beautiful House in the World: “I suppose that some people would find this an unsophisticated version of urbanity (although you could get a reasonable espresso here), and some of my academic colleagues would refer darkly to ‘hyperconsumerism’ and artificial reality. But I was more encouraged than depressed by the Plattsburgh mall. I saw people rubbing shoulders and meeting their fellow citizens in a noncombative environment—not behind the wheel of a car, but on foot.”

One of the people Rybczynski might have rubbed shoulders with is Chappie, the fourteen-year-old mall-rat hero of Banks's Rule of the Bone. Chappie's problem—like that of more than one of Banks's protagonists (see Continental Drift, Affliction, or The Sweet Hereafter)—is that he has had inflicted on him a version of America deconstructed piecemeal by default, mendacity, and greed, but he lacks the ironist's capacity to appreciate the liberatory potential of his position. His predicament (or rather the predicament of Russell Banks, his creator) is similar to that of Rybczynski and similarly subject to a problematic longing for a lost, better world. “[A] desire for local identity and old-fashioned architecture,” Rybczynski writes, “should not be confused with really wanting to return to the static communities of the past—no matter how profound our nostalgia. It is unlikely that we will ever sacrifice our freedom and mobility (both physical and social) for the constraints implied by life in the small towns we say we admire.” But an ignorant nostalgia is precisely what motivates a great deal of thinking—and angry talk—about cities and about “problem” kids like Chappie, and this attitude is precisely what these two authors are writing against. Rybczynski suggests that an awareness of history might make understandable our stranded and much exploited condition, caught as we are between a past that we'd likely find intolerable (even if we got it back) and a chaotic present that makes us permanently subject to nostalgic hucksterism. But because of our general lack of knowledge, few of us are prepared even to ask intelligent questions about our predicament, much less to get out of it.

It is no accident that Banks and Rybczynski have chosen their anachronistic, historical mediums: the city and the novel, which developed simultaneously and then succumbed to “death.” The novel, like the city, is an artifact come down to us from an age of narrative memory—now supposedly overthrown. What have not been so easily gotten over are the satisfactions once afforded by storytelling and city life, which we accommodate these days at second hand by consuming various ironic souvenirs of life as it's supposed to be. The mock-Victorian gated community serves, for example, as the urban equivalent of syndicated reruns of the Brady Bunch—each translating our longing for a compensatory civility into consumable kitsch. Perhaps this is the reason that Banks self-consciously invokes Huckleberry Finn: not to rewrite Mark Twain (as some reviewers have suggested) but to call into question the historical sources of the predicament he faces both as a writer and as an American.

Banks is the author of twelve books of fiction; he divides his time between upstate New York and Princeton University, where he is a chaired professor. Banks's protagonist Chappie is embarked on a search and, like his predecessor Huck Finn, must operate on a terrain already overwritten with witless banality and hopeless vérité, from Larry Clark's dismal film Kids to the cotton-candy idiocy of Beverly Hills, 90210. What Chappie needs is neither existential despair nor Hollywood anodynes, but all the things that Huck's Widow Douglas stood for: family, community, religion, history. Like Huck, though, he can't tolerate prepackaged solutions because they seem irrelevant to his experience (of neglect, abuse, invisibility), which is the product of the same adult culture that purportedly wants to “sivilize” him, and so to assuage its guilt over having allowed such a boy to exist in the first place. Like Huck, Chappie lights out for the territory—seeking a family, a father, and himself. That search takes him from upstate New York to Jamaica and back again.

Rule of the Bone is all about the self-conscious refusal of both emptiness and romantic cliché. Banks gives himself and his character ample opportunity to succumb to both. Chappie's Tom Sawyer turns out to be a self-serving wimp; his biker-gang “family” (with one exception) a bunch of cruel losers; his ganja-smoking “Jim” a Rasta entrepreneur who comes to a bad end; his earth-mother Aunt Sally a New Age Mrs. Robinson; and his real “Pap,” finally found, a strung-out hard case bent on his own destruction. Banks's triumph as a writer, here as in his other novels, is that he creates type after type after type, and then writes each character into believable (if not always likable) human reality. Not even Mark Twain was always able to pull that off, least of all in the concluding section of Huckleberry Finn.

This reality is nowhere more wonderfully achieved than with Chappie himself, the mall-rat wastrel who has to convince us both that he is real and that his life matters. No small order, but Banks gets the job done:

Basically people don't know how kids think, I guess they forget. But when you're a kid it's like you're wearing these binoculars strapped to your eyes and you can't see anything except what's in the dead center of the lenses because you're too scared of everything else or else you don't understand it and people expect you to, so you feel stupid all the time. Mostly a lot of stuff just doesn't get registered. You're always fucking up and there's a lot that you don't even see that people expect you to see, like the time after my thirteenth birthday when my grandmother asked me if I got the ten dollars and the birthday card she sent me. I said to her I don't know and she started dissing me to my mom and all. But it was true, I really didn't know. And I wasn't even into drugs then.

What Chappie has to do is to forgive himself the faults that everybody else—his grandmother, his mother, his abusive stepfather—is always ready to point out in him. And he can't take possession of his own life until he also forgives the people who fill him with a sense of rage and betrayal, both his real family and the vagabond ones that he sequentially adopts.

His story, then, makes a parable about memory and understanding of a sort that seems to have become all but impossible in our acrimonious and self-involved age. “It was like I really was invisible or something,” Chappie says after he has become the self-possessed “Bone,” and “no one could see me. No, actually it was more like I was this human mirror walking down the road and all people could see when they looked in my direction was some reflection of themselves looking back because the main effect was nobody saw me myself, the kid, Chappie, Bone even, no one saw me except as a way to satisfy their desires or meet their needs, the nature of which sometimes they didn't even know about until I showed up on the scene. …” This is Banks talking to us through his character, of course, just as Rybczynski talks through the city, which has also become a “mirror” wherein we find some reflection of ourselves, looking back, as a way of satisfying our own desires and meeting our own needs. That we don't like or care for our kids, that we don't much like our cities, is no wonder then. We don't much seem to like ourselves, based on the reflections we keep inviting.

Robert Niemi (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12649

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

A ZIGZAG PATTERN

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 Banks, a plumber (as was Banks's grandfather). By his own admission, Russell Banks “was not an attractive baby, unusually long and skinny, big-headed and bald” until he was 18 months old.1 Banks also had crossed eyes, brought on, according to his mother, by whooping cough that refused to abate: “‘You wouldn't stop coughing, you couldn't, and your eyes got crossed then,’ she reports” (Banks, 34).

The dubious notion that pertussis crossed her son's eyes Banks sees as typical of his mother, whom he has described, rather bluntly, as a woman “who projects her needs and desires onto the world and reports back, more or less accurately, what she sees there” and as “a truthful but somewhat deluded and self-absorbed person, some would say a narcissistic person, and for that reason [she] has always been a lonely, unreliable witness” (Banks, 34).

If Florence Banks has had a tendency to distort reality to suit her fancies, the late Earl Banks was, according to his son, an out-and-out liar, who “lied consciously, almost perversely, like a bored nihilist, but he rarely drew me in and thus was not so dangerous to me” (Banks, 34). Banks's father was also an alcoholic and a philanderer, and he and his wife subjected themselves and their children to a home life of unremitting turmoil. Recently Banks recalled that his “parents fought constantly; they drank too much; they were violent, especially my father … They were like hysterical children, stuck in a permanent tantrum. Everyone cried and shouted a lot. There was never enough money, and they were always packing up and moving out of an old place, where things had gone wrong, into a new [place], where everything ‘would improve’” (Banks, 37).

But things didn't improve. When Banks was 12 years old, his father went off to live with a girlfriend, abandoning the family forever. Florence Banks sued for divorce and took custody of the four children. Forced back into the workplace, she took a job as a bookkeeper: poorly paid drudgery that made life a constant, desperate struggle for survival. Always short of rent money, Florence and her young brood moved from house to house, apartment to apartment, in and around Wakefield, Massachusetts. Looking back on that period, Banks notes that “although the physical violence and the drunkenness ended [with the divorce], the financial insecurity was worse” (Banks, 37).

Charged by his departing father with the obligation to be “the man of the house,” young Russell tried his best to live up to duties that should never be thrust on a child, especially by the man who shirked them. Banks's sister, Linda Weir, recalls her oldest brother as having been extremely protective toward his siblings: “He was always the responsible one. He was like a father, and he took that responsibility very seriously.”2 Banks himself suggests that his willingness to take charge, to assume a manly role while still just a boy, was probably forged out of the vicissitudes of his earliest years: “There was a high level of chaos in the family. I remember feeling the need to protect myself from these chaotic adults and tried to organize my life as much as possible. I was also cross-eyed and self-conscious as hell about that. All this may have forced the appearance of maturity on me” (Brown, 54).

Though morally and intellectually precocious, young Banks exhibited an opposing trait: a tendency to run away. Even as a toddler, Banks was given to wandering away from home. At the age of 5 or 6 his “favorite book was Toby Tyler, the story of a boy who ran off and joined the circus” (Banks, 37). When he was 9 Banks was picked up by police at the Concord, New Hampshire, airport; he had bicycled there with a knapsack on his back, intent on stowing away on an airplane, destination left to chance. At 16 Banks made a more serious and paradoxical attempt to escape from home. A self-described whiz kid at Wakefield High School, Banks applied, in January of 1956, to transfer to a first-class prep school: Phillips Andover Academy. Shortly thereafter, though, he and a friend named Dario Morelli stole Morelli's father's car and headed west on Route 66. They eventually worked their way across the country to Pasadena, California. There, Morelli, a Catholic, confessed the adventure to a priest, who turned the two boys in to their parents. However, the damage had been done. Banks's disappearance from home for nearly two months had been a terrible emotional ordeal for his family. And perhaps Banks had also managed to hobble his own future, or at least sidetrack it, by missing out on a full scholarship to Andover, proffered and then withdrawn, during his absence (Banks, 37).

Looking back on the incident as an adult, Banks has come to two conclusions. He believes that, in abandoning his beleaguered family, he was unconsciously imitating his father's flight four years before. Banks also sees the running away as directly related to the application to prep school. In his own words, the application was a “concerted attempt” to lift himself “up by his own bootstraps.” Cross-country flight was its negation. The two actions formed “a zigzag pattern … a life of advance-and-retreat, of achievement and self-sabotage, of commitment and betrayal,” a pattern yet to come to full crisis (Banks, 43).

That happened two years later, in 1958, when Banks won a full academic scholarship to Colgate University, a prestigious (and, at that time, all-white and all-male) college in Hamilton, New York. This was the proverbial opportunity of a lifetime for a hardscrabble kid—possible entry into the middle class or beyond—but Banks soon found himself overwhelmed and desperate. Almost 30 years later he described the experience in a quasi-autobiographical narrative sardonically entitled “Success Story”: “In this Ivy League school … among the elegant, brutal sons of the captains of industry, I was only that year's token poor kid, imported from a small … mill town like an exotic herb, a dash of mace for the vichyssoise. It was a status that perplexed and intimidated and finally defeated me, so that after nine weeks of it, I fled in the night.”3

Banks returned to Massachusetts, to face the shock and deep disappointment of his family, friends, and high school teachers. He later recalled that his distraught mother “seemed always to be red-eyed from weeping” (“SS” [“Success Story”], 53). The “zigzag pattern” had returned with a vengeance. Inevitably, perhaps, because Colgate presented the same, unbearable moral dilemma he had faced with the prep school application. On the one hand, it was natural for a gifted teenager to want out of an impoverished, demoralized home life. On the other hand, going off to college amounted to a massive betrayal of home and heritage, but not because he was leaving his struggling family to their own devices (he had their blessings, after all); it was their vicarious hope in his success that was betrayed. In addition, the issue was more subtle than that. Going to college meant embracing a creed utterly alien to the die-hard, working-class ethos of the Bankses. As Banks told an interviewer, “I come from a people who viewed success as a criticism of their life … if you're moving up, there's a kind of betrayal of the family. My father made a mockery of anybody who aspired to move up, unless you moved up as a wheeler dealer. That was a little different. If you could finagle a piece of real estate or a used car lot into something more lucrative, that would be all right. But to move up in the sense of moving into the world of ideas and trying to live your life through language—that was a betrayal” (Brown, 64). Leaving home was one thing. But leaving home and crossing the great divide of social class was the ultimate, terrifying apostasy. Better just to leave home, an act well within the family tradition.

One winter morning just after the 1958 Christmas holidays, Banks slung a duffel bag over his shoulder and left his mother's home in Wakefield to begin hitchhiking his way south. He had only a few dollars in his pocket but was inspired by Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which justified the trip on “religious, metaphysical, social, and political terms.”4 In “Success Story,” Banks describes this leavetaking as “an exquisite pleasure, like falling into bed and deep sleep after having been pushed beyond exhaustion. Now, I thought the morning I left … now I can start to dream my own dreams, not everyone else's” (“SS,” 54).

Just 18, Banks dreamt a strange, exotic dream: to join Fidel Castro's guerrilla war against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Wesley Brown, an interviewer of Banks, is surely right in pointing out that this adventure “was not [based on] an ideological decision; for Banks, Castro was a romantic figure who represented a rejection of both an upwardly mobile middle-class existence and the grinding poverty of working-class life” (Brown, 66). Banks was nothing like a Marxist revolutionary; he was just a lost teenager in search of a role model to help him “locate his identity,” as Wesley Brown aptly puts it.

Banks only got as far as Miami. Then, he confesses, he “got scared”: “I realized I didn't know anything. I didn't know Spanish. I didn't know how to get across to Cuba [or] what I would do if I did. I didn't have the foggiest idea where things were leading. And I didn't trust chaos enough, or happenstance enough to keep going.”5 At a loss as to what to do with himself, Banks hitchhiked up to Saint Petersburg. There he found work as a furniture mover at a downtown hotel, the only healthy young man among a crew of “seven or eight men … over forty, terminally alcoholic, physically fragile and itinerant” (“SS,” 57). After a few weeks, Banks quit the hotel. His next job was as an “assistant window trimmer,” dressing mannequins and constructing facades for the display department at Maas Brothers, a chic, downtown department store.

Also working at Maas was a pretty, 17-year-old salesgirl and bathing suit model by the name of Darlene Bennett, the daughter of a local carpet installer. The two began to date and quickly fell in love. Many years later, Banks explained that his attraction to Bennett was almost reflexive: “She was a sweet girl who loved me. At a time when I felt, in all other respects, [like] a worm … a man without character, without ability, without promise, without anything going for him, there was this very pretty young woman who thought I was just terrific” (19 May 1993). In the late summer of 1959, only a few months after they met, Banks and Bennett married.

The young couple moved into an apartment in Lakeland. Banks, still only 19, had high hopes that his marriage would “be a Fresh Start,” a “new life [that] would cancel the old life and create a new me” (“SS,” 88). Within a matter of weeks Bennett became pregnant. With the benefit of hindsight, Banks now understands all the haste as an unconscious compulsion: “Like a lot of kids from a broken family I was trying to repair that break by creating my own family, prematurely. I was out there getting married and [my wife] pregnant as fast as I could, to make the family that I had lost. Without any awareness of this at the time” (19 May 1993).

Banks's job at Maas had ended about the same time he got married, in an excruciatingly embarrassing but funny incident recounted in “Success Story” (“SS,” 52-76). After constructing a heavy four-by-eight-foot wooden panel for a bathing suit display, Banks attempted to transport it to an upper floor. Sad to say, the object proved too tall to clear the ceiling of the mezzanine at the top end of the store's escalator. In a horrendously loud, shattering impact, both ceiling and escalator were mangled. Fired on the spot, Banks next found work as a display artist at Webb's City, a sprawling discount department store that he has recently described as “a sort of precursor to Kmart” (19 May 1993). Later, Banks worked on displays at a Montgomery Ward's in Lakeland and as a shoe salesman at a suburban shopping mall.

As the year waned and his young wife grew more obviously pregnant, Banks's own anxieties reached unbearable levels. As he tells it, “[By the end of 1959] I really wanted to get the hell out of Florida and out of this trap that I could see myself settling into. The trap had several boxes in it. I was in the marriage box, soon to be a family box. I was in an educational and cultural box, trapped in a small town in central Florida, putting clothes on mannequins. I was going crazy with boredom and frustration and loneliness” (19 May 1993). Finally, in February of 1960, Banks packed his very pregnant bride and their few belongings into his old Packard and headed north to Boston.

After settling into a small basement flat on Queensborough Street in Boston's Back Bay, Banks found work in a bookstore and, as he later put it, “sort of eased into a community of young artists, painters, musicians, writers and hangers-on—most of them wannabes—between the ages of twenty and thirty. A lot of them had been or were going to the New England Conservatory [of Music] or Boston Museum of Fine Arts or Boston University theater schools” (19 May 1993). Coming out of the cultural wasteland of suburban Florida, Banks found Boston “a very exciting place to be”: “That's when I really began to take myself seriously for the first time as an artist and I first began to write, seriously, at that point” (19 May 1993).

An important influence was Leo Giroux Jr., an unpublished writer several years Banks's senior.6 Later characterized by Banks as “loud, garrulous, and insecure,” Giroux was a troubled man, perhaps manic-depressive, but apparently well read and always eager to converse about literature. Giroux gladly assumed the role of Banks's mentor, advising his charge that, in order to be a serious writer, one first had to read his way through a wide swath of classic writers. He even supplied a reading list, which included the likes of Céline, Isak Dinesen, and Stephen Crane, writers Banks hadn't even heard of at that time. Looking back on those days, Banks sees his friendship with Giroux as an important but short-lived moment in his development as a writer: “Our lives touched, when I was twenty and he was twenty-seven or so, and there was a wonderful spark that jumped from his life to mine. And then there was too great a gap between us for that spark to cross, either way, again” (19 May 1993).

Meanwhile, Banks's marriage was, in his own words, “under enormous stress.” At the stage when sexual infatuation needs to be replaced by deeper bonds, both he and Darlene were discovering that they had next to nothing in common beyond extreme youth and naïveté. The birth of a daughter, Leona (nicknamed Lea), on 13 May 1960 only added to the pressures. Six months later Banks initiated the inevitable break, very much against his wife's wishes. Heartbroken, panicked, and full of resentment, Bennett had no choice but to return to Florida with the baby and live with her parents. Shortly thereafter, Bennett remarried and put up a wall of silence that Banks made no effort to penetrate; there was no contact between either party for many years. It was as if Banks had never been married or fathered a child, an act of desertion not unlike his father's, as he later admitted to Wesley Brown: “I essentially replicated my father's behavior toward me and my siblings, in that I abandoned [Lea] for no clear reasons. I was able to explain my behavior in various ways, as I'm sure my father rationalized his behavior” (Brown, 68).

Six months later Banks met, through mutual friends, a lively, attractive but volatile Emerson College theater major named Mary Gunst. Banks had just turned 21 when the two entered into a stormy romance that he was not well equipped to handle. In the throes of what he has come to feel was a delayed reaction to the physical and emotional battering he had suffered in his upbringing, and full of guilt over the breakup of his marriage, Banks soon found himself on the verge of collapse: “I was coming undone … my emotional equilibrium was achieved and maintained with great difficulty. I had, that summer, what today we'd probably call a nervous breakdown” (19 May 1993).

Depressed to the point of paralysis, Banks did what he had done so many times before to save himself. He put some belongings into his duffel and lit out—for Florida once again, as if drawn instinctually to warmer climes. But beyond escape there was also a positive motivation. He later told an interviewer that he “had to pull away from that Boston crowd. I was getting much more serious as a writer, and I couldn't do that staying up until 4, smoking dope, drinking wine, and snapping fingers to the cadence of ‘Howl.’”7 Intent on solitude in order to write and to get his life back together, Banks ended up at Islamorada Key, 50 miles north of Key West. There he spent the latter half of 1961 living in a trailer, writing during the day, and pumping gas at night at a filling station next to the trailer park. Still in possession of Leo Giroux's reading list, Banks continued his self-education, loading up on works by Melville, Hawthorne, Henry James, and other American classics when the bookmobile from Miami made its weekly stop.

Restless again near the end of the year, Banks hitchhiked down to Key West, which he remembers, with great fondness, as “a Caribbean kind of town, really quite wonderful … The town itself had not turned into the tourist trap that it has become. It was a navy base, a sailor town—bars and whorehouses. All kinds of flotsam and jetsam, ne'er-do-wells and drop-outs from the continent ended up there. It was sort of a last jumping off place before you got into the Caribbean” (19 May 1993). Low on money, Banks stayed in a dollar-a-night rooming house (actually a whorehouse) and began to look for work. Unable to find any, he was about to move on when he met up with two other men living in the same building: a young sailor from Oklahoma, AWOL from the base, and a slightly older man, a barker at strip shows in Atlantic City, fresh from a jail term in New Jersey. Card sharps with lots of money, both men wanted out of Key West, but neither could obtain a legal driver's license, which Banks had. So, for mutually expedient reasons, the three teamed up to drive “an old German Opal” from Miami across country for delivery to its owner in Los Angeles. What followed was a much wilder version of Banks's cross-country junket with Dario Morelli five and a half years earlier.

The trip, which should have taken only about a week, took three months. The three lingered in New Orleans for six weeks, staying at a motel populated by strippers the barker knew, then proceeded across Texas and into Oklahoma, to drop off the sailor at his parents' home. Banks and the convict then headed into northern Mexico, “stopping at these little towns, sitting around getting drunk, acting like fools and wastrels,” as Banks remembers it (19 May 1993). Long after it was probably reported stolen, the car finally made its appearance in Los Angeles in the spring of 1962. Banks phoned the owner to notify him of its whereabouts in a store parking lot, with the keys tucked into the sun visor.

Banks then proceeded down to San Diego to visit his mother, who had relocated there, two years before, to take a job as a bookkeeper at Raytheon Corporation. Though he was glad to see his sister, Linda, and his brother, Chris, relations with his mother were strained, and he didn't much like southern California. After a few months, Banks called his father, who was then living in Concord, New Hampshire. His father advised him to come back East and “learn a useful trade, stop all this goofing around, and settle down and become a useful citizen,” which Banks recalls as seeming “like a very good idea at that point” (19 May 1993).

After a series of hitchhiking adventures of the sort “made into a cliché by Kerouac,” Banks arrived in New Hampshire, whereupon his father got him into the union as a plumber's apprentice (19 May 1993). Banks settled into a small apartment above the Apple Tree Bookstore on Warren Street in Concord—his “bachelor digs”—and bought a 1932 black Ford pickup truck. A pipe fitter by day, Banks was a fledgling writer, working on a novel, in his off-hours, which also included frequent forays into Boston to see his bohemian friends in the Back Bay and enjoy the city's bookstores, arts, and nightlife. It was a starkly bifurcated life but manageable all the same.

Less manageable was Banks's relationship with Mary Gunst, with whom he had been in touch ever since he had fled Boston the previous summer, even though both had come to the understanding that their troubled romance was, in Banks's words, “a broken one.” By the time Banks returned to New England, Gunst was no longer living in Boston; she had transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond for her senior year. That October, Banks phoned her to break off the relationship once and for all. The next night he found Mary Gunst at his doorstep; at a moment's notice she had dropped out of school to be with him. Shortly thereafter, on 29 October 1962, Banks and Gunst were married. They lived in Concord for the next year.

During that period Banks finished his first attempt at a novel, which he has since described as “quite simply awful, despite a few striking paragraphs here and there.”8 He took a week off from work in late August 1963 to attend the Breadloaf Writers' Conference near Middlebury, Vermont, then under the direction of poet John Ciardi. On the staff at Breadloaf was Nelson Algren, winner of the first National Book Award in 1949 for Man with the Golden Arm, and, at age 54, the unofficial dean of American proletarian fiction. As he was paid to do, Algren read Banks's manuscript and, as Banks recalls, “quickly located those few striking paragraphs and pointed them out to me and made it clear that I was supposed to do the rest myself (and what more can an apprentice writer ask of a master anyhow?)” (Banks, 1990, 34). After that, Algren, who didn't drive, suggested that the two of them escape the stuffy atmosphere of the colony, where writers drank sherry “with their little fingers in the air” (Banks, 1990, 34). The pair convened to a bar in Middlebury and cemented their friendship over beers. Banks, who recalls Algren as “large-hearted, funny, angry, lonely,” entered into a mentor-acolyte relationship with him even more important than the one he had had with Leo Giroux (Banks, 1990, 34). Banks now credits Algren (who died in 1981) as having “validated me as a writer. [He] said this is real writing, you're a real writer. He said it in public, he declared it to me privately. And he allowed me to have access to him personally in a way which let me learn how to behave in the world as an adult writer” (19 May 1993).

CHAPEL HILL

Mary Gunst's well-to-do parents had not exactly taken to Banks with open arms. But after the marriage, the Gunsts came to reconcile themselves to their somewhat scruffy son-in-law. Before the birth of Caerthan in July of 1964—the first of three daughters Gunst and Banks would have together—Banks's mother-in-law offered to pay his way through college, an offer that Banks has since pronounced “one of the purely generous acts I've encountered in my life” (Wilkie, 27). There was only one stipulation: that Banks attend a college in the South so that Mary could be near her family. Banks gladly accepted the offer and considered Duke and the University of Virginia but finally chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because it was coed, less formal, and more cosmopolitan than the other schools. He enrolled there in September 1964, “the year,” as Banks puts it, “that Chapel Hill kind of became the Berkeley of the South. I walked in there expecting to go to a sleepy but interesting southern town and a large but nonetheless fairly elite state university. Instead I walked into a hotbed of radicalism. The Civil Rights movement was everywhere and the anti-war movement was just starting” (19 May 1993).

Banks recalls “two significant events” happening to him within a week of his arrival, incidents that signaled the true beginning of “the Sixties” for him personally. At a small gathering on campus, another student, just back from Morocco, produced an attaché case entirely filled with hashish. Later that week, Banks attended a racially integrated party in a house out in the country, an affair that was soon broken up by Ku Klux Klan gunfire. Coming from New Hampshire, where there were relatively few blacks, Banks was shocked by the intense racism that still permeated Chapel Hill, supposedly “the most liberal city in the upper South” (Wilkie, 27). The experience radically altered his views on race. As he told an interviewer, “until then, black people had been exotic, mysterious, to me. They were more emblematic, symbolic to me than real. It wasn't really until Chapel Hill that I managed to understand black Americans as human beings, and with that came an understanding of the political reality of their lives” (Wilkie, 27).

Six years after the Colgate fiasco, Banks made the most of his second chance at college. Majoring in English, he handled his course work with great energy and skill, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1967 (in less than three years). The same kind of striving marked Banks's literary interests outside the classroom. In 1966 he and a close friend, poet William Matthews, cofounded Lillabulero Press, to publish poetry chapbooks and a little magazine, also entitled Lillabulero, “a Periodical of Literature and the Arts” (along with poetry and fiction, the first four numbers also featured loose-leaf portfolios of artwork). With Banks, Matthews, and occasionally Newton Smith as editors, Lillabulero published a mix of established and younger writers, all of whom were politically and aesthetically antiestablishment to varying degrees. Contributors included Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Nelson Algren, Malcolm Cowley, Diane Wakoski, Greg Kuzma, Margaret Randall, and Andre Codrescu.

Banks remembers the magazine as “a great focus for our chaotic energies and ambitions. We thought of ourselves as young Turks. Before long the magazine turned out, to our surprise, to have a following that wasn't just Chapel Hill.”9 Banks understates the case; quickly earning a national reputation for excellence, Lillabulero achieved and steadily maintained a circulation of about 1,000 copies throughout its eight-year life span.10

Banks also got himself published. In 1967 he and his coeditors, William Matthews and Newton Smith, each contributed five poems to 15 Poems, a Lillabulero Press chapbook.11 Banks's poems are artless in the extreme, plainspoken prose verse on the most prosaic subjects: the view from his bed, a maudlin drunk singing in a bar, a girl failing to catch a frisbee, a disappointing beach trip, and eight mournful haiku on a favorite Banks topic—the rigors of New England in winter. Mostly bad poetry, of which little can be said except that it is earnest and heartfelt.

More interesting is a short story that Banks published in the July 1967 issue of Lillabulero, entitled “The Adjutant Bird” (after a Kipling tale). Therein Banks recounts the true story of Yankee sea captain Frederick Tudor, who pioneered the shipping of ice from New England to the American South, the West Indies, and even India in the early 1800s. Banks's fascination with Tudor is telling in several ways. One attraction, no doubt, was the sheer oddity of Tudor's story. Marketing ice in the tropics before modern refrigeration was, to say the least, a strange, quixotic venture. Then there was the heroic element. Tudor eventually succeeded, through sheer will, courage, perseverance, and ingenuity, traits that Banks could well appreciate. On a deeper level, Tudor's story centers on a theme that had already marked Banks's life and would occupy an increasingly important place in his subsequent work: the intersection of alien worlds, especially the northern and southern hemispheres. Finally, there's the rich metaphor of the ice itself: a substance as fragile and elusive as truth, only precious where it is most evanescent.

RETURNING TO THE WOUND

Though Banks and Mary Gunst were quite happy living in Chapel Hill, neither of them wanted to join the ranks “of that population that, after graduation, hangs around” town.12 So in the summer of 1968, shortly after the birth of their second daughter, Maia, they left North Carolina for Northwood Narrows, New Hampshire. A small town in the southeastern corner of the state, Northwood was about a half an hour's drive west of Durham and not far from Barnstead, where Banks grew up. The choice was not accidental, of course. Though he now sees the move as hardly “a single-minded, obsessive return,” Banks clearly had deep emotional ties to the area (12 August 1993). Furthermore, New England real estate was then extraordinarily cheap. A large house could be had for as little as $25,000, which is exactly what Banks and Gunst paid for “a pretentious Victorian farm house” that Banks despised but his wife loved (12 August 1993). Without much difficulty, Banks secured jobs teaching writing at Emerson College, Boston, and at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Joining Banks and his family in the move to Northwood were Doug Collins and his wife. Collins was a Lillabulero Press cohort and close friend with whom, Banks recalls, he “was able to share ideas and gained ideas from” (12 August 1993). Shortly thereafter, Banks and Collins were joined by the poet Charles Simic, who came to teach at the University of New Hampshire and whom Banks describes as his “fellow reader.” In an intensive, self-imposed discipline much like graduate study, both would read the same books—detective fiction for awhile, then, perhaps, pre-Socratic philosophy or theoretical physics—and discuss ideas and responses.

The return to New Hampshire was soon manifest in Banks's writing. In 1969 Banks published his first poetry chapbook, Waiting to Freeze, through his own press, Lillabulero.13 As the title suggests, the 10 poems contained therein are steeped in the bleak atmospherics of New England in winter, a real landscape but also the psychic terrain of Banks's troubled youth. In a poem entitled “Purchase,” Banks speaks directly to his need to keep on returning to New England

[f]or chances
To bicker with memories,
To re-enter the lists
Armed with the cool gigantic force
Of dead anger,
Making messes of the past,
Remaking everything
In my own images.

As Banks later told Wesley Brown, “I can see my life as a kind of obsessive return to the ‘wound’ … Going back again and again trying to get it right, trying to figure out how it happened and who is to blame and who is to forgive” (Brown, 68).

Returning to the “wound” seems to have had salutary effects. Banks's family was filled out with the birth of a fourth daughter, Danis, in January of 1970. And his literary endeavors proceeded apace. That same year, one of Banks's stories was chosen for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. Three years later he won the Fels Award for fiction. Shortly thereafter, while serving as visiting professor at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, Banks published a longer poem entitled Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter, a comic novella, Family Life, and his short story collection Searching for Survivors.14

Snow picks up where Waiting to Freeze leaves off. Written in short, spare lines, the poem begins as a meditation on the hardness of New England winters. But, halfway through, memory takes over and the cold, snowy landscape once again becomes the primal scene of the poet's traumatic childhood: “Hands! I'd looked for / hands! Fisted, / like knotted wet rope. / Hands pounding down on me, the / face fading above.” Suddenly reliving the horror of his past, the speaker—clearly Banks—engages in guilty self-interrogation:

Are you, have you ever been, a violent man?
Yes. Of course. My father
beat me. He was a champion youth.
A brawler in the ring, as they tell it now,
But a precise boxer in the streets.
I was neither,
I fear.
But I would have settled for either. Listen can't we talk
about something else for a change? Yes,
I was, have been, am still,
a violent man. But I've only beaten
women and men.
I've never been anything
but kind to children

Here the poem's real subject emerges: how Banks's father's beatings instilled violence in him, which he, in turn, inflicted upon others. Banks admitted as much to Wesley Brown: “When I was much younger, I was a violent man … I was violent against the people I loved. But I was never violent against my children. That's as specific as I can be” (Brown, 70).

The sombre and deeply personal tone of Snow finds marked contrast in Family Life, an absurdist fable set in contemporary North America but featuring fairy tale characters: King Egress the Hearty (sometimes “The Bluff”), his wife, Naomi Ruth, their three sons, Princes Egress, Dread, and Orgone, and various other zanies. Highly episodic and virtually plotless, Family Life superimposes the hip psychobabble of seventies pop culture unto the medieval folktale genre for comic effect. Yet Banks's underlying intention is serious: to satirize the inane self-importance of the domestic melodrama, a narrative impulse that has come to dominate contemporary American culture across all its media. The critics were mystified and not at all amused; they savaged the book, finding it “impenetrable,” “heavy-handed and pretentious,” “appallingly clumsy.”15 If Snow was too private and esoteric to add to Banks's fledgling literary reputation, Family Life actually damaged it.

Banks was, however, on firmer ground with Searching for Survivors, a collection of 14 stories dedicated to the memory of his younger brother, Christopher, who was killed at the age of 17 in 1968, when the freight train he was riding in was destroyed in a mud-slide outside of Santa Barbara, California, a tragedy movingly recounted in the collection's closing story, “Searching for Survivors (II).” Also of note are three stories that feature, in varying degrees of irony, one of the heroes of Banks's adolescence, the late Che Guevara (to whom Banks had already paid homage in a 1969 poem).16

The collection, which won the St. Lawrence Award for short fiction, was generally well received by critics. Publishers Weekly cited Banks's talent for the “evocation of place, his feel for the Yankee sensibility and New England landscape.”17 Thomas LeClair, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was equally generous in his assessment: “Some of the stories are journeyman stuff and several are Barthelmean oddments, but the best are as deceptive as wisdom. In them invention seems off-hand and natural, artifice and circumstance one. Without being small, Banks's stories have an assurance few younger—or established—writers can match.”18

BIPOLARITY

After the publication of Searching for Survivors Banks's career noticeably gathered momentum. In 1976 he applied for and won a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship. A few years earlier Banks had had the opportunity to rent a vacation house in Jamaica, where he became “deeply attracted to the culture, the people, and fell in love with the place” (Thiébaux, 121). He used the $25,000 Guggenheim grant to install himself and his family in an estate on Jamaica rented out by whites who had fled Michael Manley's new regime for Canada. The Bankses stayed on the island for more than a year, from May 1976 to September 1977.

In the course of his stay, Banks finished two book-length manuscripts and several short stories. When he wasn't writing, Banks took pains to adapt to the island and its culture. As he told Wesley Brown, “I used to hang out with a bunch of guys in Jamaica who played dominoes. I made a point of getting good at it. It was a way of learning patois, and people forgot I was an American and started dealing with me as if I were just another guy playing dominoes. At some point, I realized that these men—carpenters, stone masons, upholsterers and cab drivers—did the same things as the men I knew growing up” (Brown, 68).

Banks also ventured into the back country, where he made friends among the Maroons, a religious sect descended from Ashanti slaves who had successfully rebelled against the British in the late eighteenth century. At the same time, Banks supplemented his travels with extensive reading on the history of Jamaica and Caribbean life in general. As he told an interviewer, “Like most fiction writers, I'm really a library rat, and look for excuses to research something” (Thiébaux, 121).

Banks's wife and children returned to Northwood in June of 1977. Banks stayed on in Jamaica until September. He would later recall that by the time he returned home, the marriage, “which had been coming undone for some years … was pretty much kaput” (12 August 1993). Despite deep bonds of affection, there were fundamental differences in temperament that made a parting of the ways inevitable. Jamaica had catalyzed the break: “we really kind of went our separate ways down there. I had my interests and my life and the children were the main thing that kept us together” (12 August 1993). Barely a month after returning home, Banks moved out of the house. He bought a small farmhouse just down the road, to remain close to the children, who now ranged in age from 7 to 13.

Out of a marriage, Banks also found himself out of work. During his absence, Banks's teaching job at the University of New Hampshire was discontinued. Luckily, Banks was able to secure a tenure-track position at New England College in Henniker, where he had been visiting professor three years earlier. And his literary career continued to flourish with the publication, in 1978, of two books he had worked on in the Caribbean: Hamilton Stark, his second novel, and The New World: Tales, his second collection of short fiction.19

Hamilton Stark is set in New Hampshire, though much of it was written in Jamaica. Indeed, Hamilton Stark shows every evidence of being another attempt by Banks to understand himself by reimagining his New England past: a daunting, perhaps impossible project, given the enormous complexity of any individual's identity. Banks acknowledges as much by beginning with a quote from Kierkegaard: “The individual has a host of shadows, all of which resemble him and for the moment have an equal claim to authenticity.”

Banks's title character, Hamilton Stark, is his case in point. A five-times married misanthropic Yankee who is fond of dumping his garbage on his property and then shooting at it with a high-powered rifle, Stark is a veritable mass of contradictions: “self-centered, immature, violent, cruel, eccentric, and possibly insane,” but also meticulously well groomed, funny, handsome, ferociously quick witted, relentlessly honest, and a great dancer to boot. Husky, turbulent Stark is partly self-caricature but mostly a kind of mythic portrait of Banks's father, Earl.

Banks's unnamed narrator (another version of the author) is in love with Stark's daughter, Rochelle. Obsessed with “Ham” in all his abominable glory, both are writing, or attempting to write, books about the man. In the end, though, the subject proves too elusive for satisfactory closure. Tracking Stark on his weekly trek to the summit of Blue Job Mountain, the narrator loses him altogether and is left, in the largest sense, with “Nothing. Unimaginable nothing.

In the final analysis, Hamilton Stark is an epistemological thriller, a self-deconstructing detective novel/(auto)biography that embraces indeterminacy without lapsing into solipsism or despair. Banks's methods reinforce his message. Though there is nothing extraordinary about his prose, which might be described as a kind of witty naturalism, with lots of sly authorial asides, the overall structure of the novel is self-consciously postmodern. As critic Ann Birstein has pointed out, the book resembles a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting patterns, with Banks “using every literary device at hand, including a formal introduction to the novel, an elaborate study of the geography and history of the region, Hamilton's reminiscences, tape recordings by his [ex-]wives, various addenda, philosophical digressions, footnotes,” and the like.20 Though some critics found so many obvious displays of artifice cloying, most reviewers felt that Banks had managed to apply sophisticated metafictional techniques wisely and well.

As for The New World, Banks divides the book into two parts, each containing five stories. The first section, headed “Renunciation,” features realistic tales of contemporary American life. Focusing especially on the vagaries of sexual relationships, Banks offers no easy moral judgments, only the studied irony so evident in Hamilton Stark. The second half of the collection, “Transformation,” is decidedly more experimental in style and subject matter, a neat bifurcation reflecting Banks's as yet unresolved ambivalence regarding the uses of realism versus metafiction. In four of these five stories, Banks employs a narrative technique perfected by E. L. Doctorow, which involves casting historical figures in imaginary situations.21 Simon Bolívar, Jane Hogarth (wife of William Hogarth, the painter), Edgar Allan Poe, and Jamaicans Bernardo de Balbuena (seventeenth-century Spanish prelate and poet) and Mosseh Alvares (a Sephardic goldsmith)—all are taken out of the abstract, distant past and depicted in intensely intimate, living terms. In effect, history shades into fiction and fiction melds into history. Banks's central theme, though, is the enduring human need to reinvent the self in order to escape or transcend the constrictions of one's actual circumstances. This means creating a “new world” out of the imagination, just as the “discovery” of the Americas opened up vast horizons for a culturally exhausted Old World Europe.

Stylistically sophisticated and conceptually daring, The New World was deemed “pretentious” in some quarters, a charge critics often leveled at Banks's earlier work, probably because of its cerebral, ratiocinative properties.22 Other reviewers were able to see beyond Banks's fondness for complex contrivance. Finding the collection's “strongest and most common trait … a wonderful exercise of the imagination,” Robert Kiely pronounced Banks a writer who “deserves watching.”23Publishers Weekly was even more enthusiastic: “The New World is … the kind of unequivocally brilliant performance that one can't ever be sure of seeing twice in any writer's career.”24

With Hamilton Stark Banks had examined, from almost every conceivable point of view, the myriad and contradictory facets of an individual personality. In his next novel, The Book of Jamaica (1980), Banks applied the same sort of perceptual intensity to the entire culture of Jamaica, his setting and subject.25 This time, however, formal pyrotechnics were eschewed in favor of a relatively straightforward narrative style and structure. The only significant innovation Banks allowed himself was a declension of his unnamed narrator's voice, which begins in the first person, eventually shifts to the second, and ends in the third, as the narrator is inexorably drawn out of himself and into the life of the island. Not surprisingly, that narrator is loosely based on Banks himself: a 36-year-old New Hampshire college professor and novelist on a grant to study the Maroons. Aptly described by critic Darryl Pinckney as “extravagantly sincere, alert to cultural differences, and filled with racial guilt,” Banks's narrator is the archetypal liberal academic, well meaning but rather smug in his relentless “grasping after certainty.”26

The island, however, is a “text” not easily read by an outsider. Indeed, mysteries abound, not least of which is a decades-old murder that might have involved Jamaica's most famous white resident, the notoriously roguish actor, Errol Flynn. For the narrator (and for Banks), Flynn is a powerfully evocative symbol of all that is wrong with the affluent West: its casual brutality, its decadence, its flagrant disrespect for other cultures. Yet Banks refuses to settle for easy moral dichotomies. His narrator's growing identification with the miserably exploited Maroons culminates in an ill-advised attempt to mediate a treaty dispute, an act of friendly meddling that only results in violence and terror. The man the natives come to call “Johnny” (the Jamaican name for a trusted foreigner) leaves the island less certain than ever as to what he had experienced.

Most critics were deeply impressed by The Book of Jamaica. Jerome Klinkowitz called it a “truly excellent novel” and “the breakthrough novel for commercially innovative fiction in America.”27 The reviewer for Booklist applied Banks's own description of the Jamaican taste in music to the novel as a whole: “impeccable and serious, knowledgeable and refined.”28

With his next book, Trailerpark (1981), Banks once again trained his sights on New England working-class life.29 A collection of 13 interrelated stories, Trailerpark is strongly reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in form, content, and overall mood. Each of the stories deals with one of the dozen or so denizens of Granite State Trailerpark (in central New Hampshire), all of whom are “generally alone in the world.” There are “widows and widowers, divorcees and bachelors and retired Army officers, a black man in a white society, a black woman there, too, a drug dealer, a solitary child of a broken home, a drunk, a homosexual in a heterosexual society—all of them, man and woman, adult and child, basically alone in the world.” Indeed, Banks's main theme is the terrible isolation of the poor, a condition that breeds anomie, derangement, and various forms of suicidal behavior. But, as critic Jonathan Yardley has pointed out, “the natural human instinct is to seek community,” an instinct that finds “these utterly unconnected people … drawn together by the accident of living in the same place; the trailer park, grim and dreary as it may be, is a neighborhood. And into it Banks has crowded a small but vibrant cast of characters, a human comedy in microcosm.”30

One commentator rightly noted that Trailerpark “was a more thorough-going exploration of literary realism than The New World or anything [Banks] had written until that time.”31 Used to thinking of Banks as an experimental writer in the Barthelme camp, critics were divided over the conspicuous ordinariness of Trailerpark's style and subject matter. To reviewer Mary Soete the stories were “haunting in their moments of recognition and reversal.”32 Calling Trailerpark “a lucid, serious, witty frieze of a book,” Anna Shapiro found Banks's characters “impossible to condescend to,” despite their “bad grammar and stereotypical poverty.”33 Jonathan Yardley detected “a jaunty, lightly mocking quality” in Banks's prose that he found “entirely engaging” (Yardley, 3). On the other hand, Kirkus Reviews felt that Banks made his characters function “as illustrations, as primal types,” contriving a “mythic determinism” that replaces “mysterious vertigo with puppetry. Talented work from a special writer, yet somehow it all misses by a hair.”34

Not long after the publication of Trailerpark, Banks entered into a third marriage, with Kathy Walton, then director of the Associated Writing Programs. Intent on working as an editor in Manhattan's publishing district, Walton persuaded Banks to relocate to New York City. After five years at New England College and twelve years of living in New Hampshire, Banks was willing to experience urban life and to “get into a larger pool of writers and intellectuals” (12 August 1993). Walton found work as an editor at Harper & Row, and Banks accepted a combined position, teaching writing at the Columbia University graduate school and at Princeton University.

The next year (1983) Banks finally found a publisher for The Relation of My Imprisonment, a novella that he had written in Jamaica in 1977.35 If critics found Trailerpark something of a departure for Banks, they were in for another surprise with Relation's first-person testimony, in mock Puritan dialect, of a coffin maker imprisoned for worshipping the dead. As critic Jodi Daynard notes, “relation” refers to an archaic literary form “first used by jailed Puritan divines in the seventeenth century to relate the tests their faith had endured in prison. Each relation was read aloud to a congregation of their free brethren and framed with selected scriptures and a sermon.”36 Banks generally follows the formal conventions of the genre, but only to convey a message that would have been deeply heretical to the Puritans, who revered God, not death. Indeed, Relation struck most reviewers as a bizarre work, but also strangely mesmerizing, as if Banks had set out to repel and fascinate at the same time.

Deirdre Bair calls the novel a “parable, allegory, exemplum, and even scripture of a sort” but demurs from offering any exact explanation as to what Banks's symbolic narrative is about.37 In Jodi Daynard's opinion, Banks “succeeded in capturing the fundamental paradigm of human worship: the sense of infinity, the awe before something more perfect than oneself, which comes when one has surmounted the worship of desire” (Daynard, 28). Yet the book's rather chilling epigraph, “Remember death,” suggests a more primal message: the existential notion that life should be lived in constant awareness of one's mortality, especially in a culture overwhelmingly devoted to the denial of death.38

In his 1989 interview with Wesley Brown, Banks used the word “bipolarity” to describe the way his work swings back and forth between New England and the tropics (Brown, 68). The same term can also be applied to questions of style. Until the mid eighties, Banks favored realism for his shorter works, metafiction for his novels. Banks decisively resolved both sets of dichotomies in his fourth novel, Continental Drift, published in 1985.39 Written in a kind of neo-Dreiserian realist idiom that Banks has employed ever since, Continental Drift brings together working-class New England and the Caribbean by alternating between two narrative threads.

The main story concerns Bob Dubois, a 30-year-old oil burner repairman from Catamount, New Hampshire, who migrates to central Florida to seek a better life for himself and his family. The other narrative focuses on Vanise Dorsinville, a young black woman who flees the grinding poverty of Haiti for the United States, with infant son and nephew in tow. These symmetrical migrations—one south, the other north—converge off the coast of Florida with horrifyingly tragic results.

At 366 pages, Continental Drift was Banks's longest and most ambitious work to date. It is still widely regarded as his best. A strong seller (over 15,000 copies in hard cover, 100,000 in the paperback edition), Continental Drift won the John Dos Passos Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (which it narrowly missed winning), and was deemed one of “the best books of 1985” by Library Journal.40

Critics reached an unusual degree of consensus regarding the novel's signal strengths: the vivid, “compulsively readable” prose, the driven intensity of the narrative, Banks's ability to evoke the desperate reality of subaltern lives without condescension or bathos. In an important review for the Atlantic Monthly, critic James Atlas praised the novel extravagantly: “Continental Drift is the most convincing portrait I know of contemporary America: its greed, its uprootedness, its indifference to the past. This is a novel about the way we live now.”41

Still, no one claimed the book was flawless. In an otherwise favorable review, James Marcus found Banks's handling of the Haitian chapters less than persuasive: “[S]ome of the lengthier accounts of voodoo ritual … give off the gentlest whiff of something cooked up from a stack of National Geographics.42 Conversely, Wendy Lesser accused Banks of “monstrous pretention” for attempting “to tell Vanise's story from the inside.”43 In an interview with Janet Maslin, Banks pleaded guilty to a lesser offense—a certain detachment—in his treatment of Vanise and her culture: “It seems to me that to write about the interior life of a Haitian woman is a presumptuous thing for an American white male to do.”44

In the end, though, Banks's narrative methods aroused the most controversy. As he had so often done before, Banks bucked convention by deliberately foregrounding the ineluctibly contrived nature of storytelling with an omniscient narrator who sometimes steps in to explicate or comment upon his characters' inner lives.45 Furthermore, Banks prefaces the body of the novel with an “Invocation” in which he ritualistically summons a narrative voice to conjure Bob DuBois to life. Banks ends the novel with “Envoi,” a coda that returns his narrator to center stage, to comment on the significance of all that has transpired.

Mistaking Banks's carefully considered rejection of realist illusionism as mere pomposity, Wendy Lesser found “Envoi,” for example, “egomaniacal” and “distressingly arrogant” (Lesser, 468). Less apt to judge, Jean Strouse was filled with questions regarding Banks's authorial asides: “What is the point of these intrusions, which condescend to Bob and lecture the rest of us? It is not that Mr. Banks can't create a character without such assists, since he has done that masterfully both here and in previous work. Maybe he is posing a question about storytelling itself—the process of finding narrative lines that organize, or pretend to organize, experience … Maybe denying Bob the “magic” coherence of fiction underscores this question precisely by undermining the story—but then, maybe not.”46 To Robert Towers, however, Banks's “intrusive voice provides sweep and momentum, advancing the action rather than impeding it, and this defiance of the conventions of faceless realism does much to make Continental Drift a vigorous and original novel.”47

WINTERS TALES

However problematic it might have been to some critics, Continental Drift was the book that transformed Banks's career. Formerly a respected but little-known writer of “serious” (i.e., academic) fiction, Banks suddenly found himself elevated to mainstream status, extensively reviewed and widely read. Even Hollywood came calling. Director Jonathan Demme bought the screen rights to Continental Drift and hired Banks to right the screenplay, a task he says he found “very difficult. In a way, I had already seen the movie” (Wilkie, 27). (The film version has yet to be made.) Another signal of Banks's new status: Robert B. Wyatt, then editor in chief at Ballantine Books, bought the rights to Banks's earlier books and reissued them in a standard format, as yellow-jacketed paperbacks with uniform covers.

The irony of finally becoming a literary success by writing about the failure of the American Dream was not lost on Banks. In a 1987 interview with Trish Reeves, Banks cited his own case to make a distinction between the American Dream of success as spiritual redemption and the reality he had personally experienced.

I still view myself in the larger world the way I did when I was an adolescent. My view of myself in relation to the larger world is that of a working class family: powerless people who look up from below. I'm unable to escape that. I guess one of my recurrent themes … is that one can't escape that—how one views oneself in the larger structure is determined at an extremely early age. The great delusion is that if you only can get success then you will shift your view of yourself … you will become a different person. That's the longing, for success is really not material goods, but in fact to become a whole new person … The delusion is that success will change you—it's the American Dream—you can kill the old person and become a new one.

(Reeves, 59)

The conviction that American success ideology is predicated upon wholly fanciful and largely unconscious notions of self-transformation would form the master theme for Banks's next book, a fourth collection of short fiction entitled Success Stories (1986).

Yet another book that manifests Banks's bipolarity, Success Stories, as Isabel Fonseca has pointed out, “is not a particularly coherent collection—it has the makings of two books (and one of them is a novel).”48 Half of the dozen stories contained therein are quasi-autobiographical narratives; the other six are wholly imagined parables. In one way or another, though, all 12 stories have to do with success as a decidedly ironic outcome, devoutly to be wished but, when finally attained, almost unrecognizable.

The strongest and most haunting of the parables is “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.” The narrator, a divorced young professional named Ron, self-described as “extremely handsome,” even “beautiful,” meets haggard divorcée Sarah Cole in a fern bar in Concord, New Hampshire. She is, by Ron's reckoning, a woman with a face “homelier than any he has ever seen or imagined before.” Mesmerized by her extraordinary, ugliness, Ron strikes up a conversation with the woman in order to experience the perverse thrill of gazing at her, perhaps to revel in his own attractiveness. The two eventually fall in love and begin a very private affair that ends abruptly when Sarah demands that Ron go a step further and acknowledge her publicly. Committed to his culture's dominant notions of beauty and status, Ron violently rejects Sarah Cole, repeatedly calling her an “ugly bitch” to ward off his own guilt. Yet the ending contains a final paradox. By humiliating and reviling her, Ron transforms the crone with the “dumpy, off-center wreck of a body” into “the most beautiful woman I've ever seen”; in her dejected vulnerability, Sarah takes on a delicate, ethereal aspect.

On one level “Sarah Cole” is a deft and scathing attack on the American obsession with physical beauty and the narcissism that skews all human relationships. But, true to form, Banks deepens the meaning of his story by taking up the concomitant issue of social class. Ron is, for all intents and purposes, a “yuppie.” Sarah Cole, an overweight, uneducated, divorced mother of three who works in a printing plant, is unmistakably proletarian. Though not conscious of doing so, Ron toys with his own class identity by involving himself with a woman ordinarily unacceptable to one of his type and station in life. In the end, he experiences a terrifying epiphany regarding the reality of social class: that it is an unassailable, everyday fact, not merely an uncomfortable abstraction. Furthermore, he learns that the walls separating the classes are virtually impermeable; no sane person of privilege would risk the deep shame of being associated with one's social inferiors.

The quasi-autobiographical stories that comprise the other half of the collection form a loose narrative cycle that deals with Banks's own coming of age. In these stories Banks calls himself “Earl Painter” and changes the names of family, friends, and many other incidentals as well. He does, however, strive to remain true to the emotional reality of the events he is describing. For example, in “Queen for a Day,” Banks reprises one of the most painful periods in his life: the immediate aftermath of his father's abandonment of the family in 1952. Desperate to help his struggling mother, 12-year-old Earl writes a series of letters to Jack Bailey, host of Queen for a Day, a notoriously maudlin television program that actually awarded prizes to housewives who could summon the worst hard luck stories. Banks subtly suggests that Earl's hope that he can get his mother on the show is tantamount to an equally forlorn hope for his father's return. That Hollywood never calls is a lesson in disillusionment that helps Earl accept the fact that his father is gone forever. Hence, Banks redefines success along deeper lines: as an honest and clear-headed adjustment to the hard facts of life.

After the resounding triumph of Continental Drift, the critical response to Success Stories was comparatively tepid, indeed a virtual repeat of Banks's handling by reviewers when he brought out Trailerpark on the heels of The Book of Jamaica five years earlier. And once again, almost predictably, critics refused to accept Banks's Brechtian narrative tactics on their own terms. There were several complaints about the author's tendency “to partly aphorize about characters' feelings and development,” as if all good writing must, by definition, preserve the seamless illusion of a text without an author.49

Before producing a wholly new work, Banks did something almost unheard of in the literary world; he went back to one of his already-published novels, revised it, and republished it. The novel was, of course, Family Life, the one scourged by critics when it was published in 1975. Brought out again, in a deluxe edition by Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles) in May of 1988, Family Life was only a slightly altered rendition of its original version. Yet, this time, the critical response was markedly different. Publishers Weekly, which had derided the first edition, noted “a wonderfully funny range of literary styles” and went on to describe the revamped novel as “exuberant and irreverent,” baring “a knife-edge of social satire.”50Booklist also offered a similarly glowing evaluation: “Sexually frank, tongue-in-cheek, deliciously humorous, this little novel deserves republication. It's totally original in conception and presentation.”51

Family Life caricatured the modern nuclear family as a kind of psychosexual circus. With his next novel, Affliction (1989), Banks continued to explore issues of family dysfunction, most centrally the curse of male violence that had affected him so directly. The thesis of Affliction is a notion that Banks had introduced in his long poem, Snow, some 14 years earlier, that the compulsion to do violence is passed down from father to son, “like a secret blood disease.”52 As he later explained in an interview with Laurel Graeber, Banks wrote Affliction “to understand my own life, and also my father's and grandfather's. I wanted to know what brought them to be the human beings they were, and why they inflicted so much suffering.”53

The novel is set in Lawford, New Hampshire, a bleak, impoverished backwoods town “someplace halfway between other places,” not unlike Bob DuBois's Catamount. Indeed, Banks's protagonist, Wade Whitehouse, is a more menacing and desperate version of DuBois. Forty-one years of age and uneducated, Whitehouse holds down jobs as a part-time cop, well driller, and snowplow driver, but his “real daily work,” in the apt words of Fred Pfeil, “is the management of an unstable and ever-enlarging fund of pain and fear” (Pfeil, 76-77). Mercilessly beaten by his alcoholic father as a boy, Wade has turned into a depressive, rage-filled alcoholic in his middle age, living alone in a trailer in the aftermath of a marriage broken up by his own drunken violence. Predictably, despite desperate, misguided attempts to turn his desolate life around, Wade Whitehouse self-destructs and takes his father and another man with him; the psychic scarring of a brutal upbringing proves too great a force to overcome.

Though “almost unremittingly grim,” the spectacle of Wade's steady descent into the abyss is at least partially redeemed through the empathic perspective of his younger brother, Rolfe, Banks's narrator.54 Rolfe, a high school history teacher in the Boston area, is, like Banks himself, the son who escaped his working-class origins, which also meant escaping the vortex of violence and hopelessness that claimed Wade. Educated, articulate, highly sensitive to the moral nuances of Wade's fate, Rolfe leavens, with pity, the terror of Wade's story. Yet it would be something of an oversimplification to identify Rolfe with Banks himself and to see Wade only as a type for Banks's father, Earl (to whom the book is tellingly dedicated). As Julian Loose has noted, the unmarried “Rolfe can absent himself from the awful tradition of male violence only by cultivating ‘an elegiac mode of relatedness,’ a drastic kind of emotional withdrawal; but Wade, less fortunate, finds himself doomed to repeat the pattern, and to his horror becomes ever more like his father.”55 In his interview with Wesley Brown, Banks offers a self-description, as reformed and chastened brute, that unmistakably evokes Wade and Rolfe as before-and-after aspects of himself: “When I was much younger, I was a violent man. As I got older, I became a controlled and restrained man who withdrew from any situation where I was vulnerable—especially with women and children. I avoided intimacy, so there was no chance of being caught with my guard down” (Brown, 70). Whatever else it might be, Affliction is Banks's most concerted attempt, since Hamilton Stark, to exorcise the ghost of his troubled, violent father.

As one commentator noted, Affliction “failed to arouse the [almost] unanimous enthusiasm of reviewers, as Continental Drift had done.” It did, however, confirm Banks's “stature as a major American novelist with access to the mainstream.”56 Elizabeth Tallent termed Affliction “psychological portraiture of a high order … a beautifully sustained, suspenseful and many-leveled evocation.”57 To Alice Bloom, Banks's sixth novel was “haunting, passionate … one of the best I have read for many years.”58 “In its stark intensity and everyday familiarity,” wrote Jon Saari, “this superb novel is joltingly disturbing, as all deeply felt personal tragedies can be.”59

With his next novel, The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Banks avoided the omniscient, implicated, editorializing narrator that so many critics have found problematic in his later work.60 Instead of a single, guiding narrator, Banks employs four consecutive first-person narrators to tell the story of a horrifying schoolbus accident that took the lives of 14 children in the mythical town of Sam Dent in upstate New York. Each narrator embodies a singular and crucial perspective on the events. Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver responsible for the accident, comes to serve, quite naturally, as the town scapegoat. Billy Ansel, a Vietnam veteran who lost two children in the crash, represents all the bereaved parents in Sam Dent trying to cope with the tragedy. Mitchell Stephens, a New York attorney specializing in negligence cases, is corporate society's emissary; his job is to assign legal blame. Finally, Nichole Burnell, a young cheerleader and beauty queen crippled in the accident, embodies the perspective of the victim and survivor.

Banks does not dwell upon the grisy details of the accident itself. As he told an interviewer, he wrote the novel “to explore how a community is both disrupted and unified by a tragedy.”61 An equally important theme is the inexplicable mystery of life and death. Despite what one reviewer nicely described as “the deep-seated human need to fix blame,” exhibited by the victims' survivors and their legions of lawyers, the accident was just that: an accident.62 Yet that critical insight is lost on most of the anguished inhabitants of Sam Dent until Nichole Burnell torpedoes all pending litigation by falsely claiming that she saw Dolores Driscoll driving well over the posted speed limit. Nichole's lie was designed to hurt and repudiate her sexually abusive father, but the overall effect is to liberate Sam Dent from divisive legal battles that distract it from the more subtle and difficult work of healing, of accepting the unacceptable.

Described by critics as “gripping,” “beautifully written,” “a very good book,” “a very accomplished book, well planned and well executed,” The Sweet Hereafter was less ambitious and more accessible than either Continental Drift or Affliction.63 On the other hand, more than one reviewer noted that there was “something disturbingly formulaic about it” (May, 793): “The bus driver is married to a stroke victim; the bereaved father of two is a Vietnam veteran and a cancer-widower; the teenaged girl stuck in a wheelchair is also a victim of her father's seductions; the lawyer's grown daughter, hopelessly lost to drugs, turns out also to have AIDS … [The story leaves] no topic untouched, as if pleading to become a TV movie.”64 Yet no critic could deny that The Sweet Hereafter is a highly readable novel animated by a profound moral vision.

Banks's eighth novel, Rule of the Bone (1995), presents the first-person narrative of Chapman (“Chappie”) Dorset, a 14-year-old mall rat from upstate New York who bears considerable resemblance to Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. A product of divorce, Chappie breaks with his mother and abusive stepfather and embarks on a journey of self-discovery that takes him into an underworld of bikers, drugs, child pornography, and homelessness. But, true to the form of the bildungsroman, Chappie, also known as “Bone,” eventually achieves a kind of moral redemption through the guidance of a middle-aged Rastafarian mentor figure named I-Man. Though marred by certain improbabilities in plotting, Bone received generally favorable reviews for its vivid evocation of the contemporary teenage street scene, a harrowing world that speaks volumes about the spiritual condition of American society.

As of this writing, Russell Banks, now in his mid fifties and a full professor at Princeton University, is nearing completion of his ninth novel, on the fiery abolitionist John Brown. Divorced from Kathy Walton in 1988, Banks is now married to poet Chase Twitchell, who also teaches at Princeton. For the last few years, they've divided their time between a home in Princeton and a summer house in Keene, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains—both locations a long way, metaphorically speaking, from Newton, Massachusetts, or Barnstead, New Hampshire. Banks himself finds it “hard to believe” he has “come this far,” turning up “alive and more or less coherent” into his middle age: “Yet,” he writes, “year after year, like the proverbial bad penny, I do keep turning up, and the very persistence of the fact continues to astonish me, although I've certainly done little else but try to turn up” (Banks, 1991, 33). More than merely “turning up,” Banks has already produced a body of work that will eventually insure his recognition as one of the most important American writers of the post-Vietnam War period.

Notes

  1. Russell Banks, “Russell Banks,” Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, vol. 15 (New York: Gale, 1993), 33-45; hereafter cited in text as “Banks.”

  2. Wesley Brown, “Who to Blame, Who to Forgive,” New York Times Magazine, 10 September 1989, 52-53, 66, 68-70; hereafter cited in text as “Brown.”

  3. Russell Banks, “Success Story,” in Success Stories (New York: Ballantine, 1986), 52; hereafter cited in text as “SS.”

  4. Don Lee, “About Russell Banks,” Ploughshares (Winter 1993-1994): 210.

  5. Russell Banks, interview by author, Keene, N.Y., 19 May 1993; hereafter cited in text as “19 May 1993.”

  6. Giroux did publish a long novel near the end of his life, entitled The Rishi (New York: M. Evans, 1985).

  7. Curtis Wilkie, “Grit Lit,” Boston Globe, 25 August 1991.

  8. Russell Banks, “Nelson Algren: The Message Still Hurts,” New York Times Book Review, 29 April 1990, 34; hereafter cited in text as “Banks, 1990.”

  9. Marcelle Thiébaux, “PW Interviews Russell Banks,” Publishers Weekly, 15 March 1985, 121; hereafter cited in text as “Thiébaux.”

  10. By prior agreement, Banks and Matthews terminated the journal with its 14th number, in 1974; see The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, ed. Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie (Yonkers, N.Y.: Pushcart Press, 1978), 710-11.

  11. Russell Banks, William Mathews, and Newton Smith, 15 Poems (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Lillabulero Press, 1967), 1-5.

  12. Russell Banks, interview by author, Burlington, Vt., 12 August 1993; hereafter cited in text as “12 August 1993.”

  13. Russell Banks, Waiting to Freeze (Northwood Narrows, N.H.: Lillabulero Press, 1969), n.p.

  14. Russell Banks, Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter (Hanover, N.H.: Granite Publications, 1975); Family Life (New York: Avon, 1975); Searching for Survivors (New York: Fiction Collective, 1975).

  15. “Impenetrable”: New York Times Book Review, 20 April 1975, 30; “heavy-handed and pretentious”: Publishers Weekly, 6 January 1975, 59; “appallingly clumsy”: Bruce Allen, Library Journal, 15 September. 1975, 1650.

  16. “Homage to Che Guevara,” Quest 3, 2 (Winter-Spring 1969): 28-29.

  17. Publishers Weekly, 31 March 1975, 52.

  18. Thomas LeClair, review of Searching for Survivors, New York Times Book Review, 18 May 1975, 7.

  19. Russell Banks, Hamilton Stark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978); The New World: Tales (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1978); hereafter cited in text as The New World.

  20. Ann Birstein, “Metaphors, Metaphors,” New York Times Book Review, 2 July 1978, 12.

  21. The exception is “The Adjutant Bird,” written considerably earlier (in or before 1967), discussed above.

  22. At least two critics use the word pretentious in their reviews: William Koon, review of The New World, Library Journal, 1 February 1979, 419, and Edward Butscher, review of The New World, Booklist, 15 January 1979, 793.

  23. Robert Kiely, “Tales and Stories,” New York Times Book Review, 25 February 1979, 27.

  24. Anonymous review of The New World, Publishers Weekly, 6 November 1978, 74.

  25. Russell Banks, The Book of Jamaica (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).

  26. Darryl Pinckney, “Seductive Setting,” New York Times Book Review, 1 June 1980, 15, 35.

  27. Jerome Klinkowitz, “From Banks, A Novel That's the Real Thing,” Book World (Chicago Sun Times), 9 March 1980, 12.

  28. Anonymous review of The Book of Jamaica, Booklist, 15 May 1980, 1343.

  29. Russell Banks, Trailerpark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981).

  30. Jonathan Yardley, “Life behind the Fiberglass Curtain,” Book World—The Washington Post, 4 October 1981, 3; hereafter cited in text as “Yardley.”

  31. Anonymous, “Russell Banks,” in World Authors, 1980-1985, ed. Vineta Colby (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1991), 66.

  32. Mary Soete, review of Trailerpark, Library Journal, 15 October 1981, 2047.

  33. Anna Shapiro, review of Trailerpark, Saturday Review, October 1981, 76.

  34. Anonymous review of Trailerpark, Kirkus Reviews, 15 August 1981, 1016.

  35. Russell Banks, The Relation of My Imprisonment (Washington, D.C.: Sun & Moon Press, 1983); hereafter cited in text as Relation.

  36. Jodi Daynard, review of The Relation of My Imprisonment, Boston Review 9, 4 (July-August 1984): 28; hereafter cited in text.

  37. Deirdre Bair, “Parable from a Coffin,” New York Times Book Review, 1 April 1984, 8.

  38. Banks culled the phrase “Remember death” from an eighteenth-century gravestone in New Hampshire. He first used it in one of his own short stories, “A Sentimental Education,” which appears in The New World.

  39. Russell Banks, Continental Drift (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

  40. Janet Fletcher et al., “The Best Books of 1985,” Library Journal, January 1986, 45.

  41. James Atlas, “A Great American Novel,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1985, 97.

  42. James Marcus, “Symmetrical Migrations,” Nation, 27 April 1985, 506.

  43. Wendy Lesser, review of Continental Drift, Hudson Review 38 (Fall 1985): 467; hereafter cited in text.

  44. New York Times, April 29, 1985.

  45. In an important interview with Trish Reeves, Banks explains his philosophy of narration: “To [narrate] without irony was a goal for me, and it wasn't just an abstract or theoretical goal, it grew out of a kind of frustration that I felt with the realistic convention of the author as merely a window on the world—a kind of Flaubertian presentation of the experience with the author out somewhere behind the clouds paring his nails so that there is an illusion of reality in front of you. And it is an illusion; you're aware of that as soon as one starts to write … This is all artifice, folks, I wanted to say on the one hand; but I still want to tell you something, I still want to tell a story. I don't want to simply comment on the artifice and reveal the artifice, which seems boring after a point, and obvious and redundant, so why bother? So I set out to reinvent, for myself anyhow, a narrator that I could trust and that the reader could trust.” Russell Banks, interview by Trish Reeves, in New Letters 53 (Spring 1987): 56.

  46. Jean Strouse, “Indifferent Luck and Hungry Gods,” New York Times Book Review, 24 March 1985, 12.

  47. Robert Towers, “Uprooted,” New York Review of Books, 11 April 1985, 37.

  48. Isabel Fonseca, “Moving Upwards,” Times Literary Supplement, 22 August 1986, 920.

  49. Anonymous review of Success Stories in Booklist, 14 June 1986, 1434.

  50. Anonymous review of Family Life (revised ed.), Publishers Weekly, 1 April 1988, 78.

  51. Anonymous review of Family Life (revised ed.), Booklist, 15 May 1988, 1570.

  52. Russell Banks, Affliction (New York: HarperCollins, 1989); quote from Eric Larsen, “Generations of Abuse,” Los Angeles Times Book Review, 20 August 1989, 10; hereafter cited in text.

  53. Laurel Graeber, “The Perspective of the Perpetrator,” New York Times Book Review, 17 September 1989, 7.

  54. The phrase is from Robert Towers's review of Affliction, “You Can't Go Home Again,” New York Review of Books, 7 December 1989, 47.

  55. Julian Loose, “Hunters and Hunted,” Times Literary Supplement, 26 October 1990, 1146.

  56. Judith Graham, ed., Current Biography Yearbook, 1992 (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1992), 47.

  57. Elizabeth Tallent, “Ice That Breaks before It Melts,” New York Times Book Review, 17 September 1989, 7.

  58. Alice Bloom, review of Affliction, Hudson Review 43 (Spring 1990): 156.

  59. Jon Saari, review of Affliction, Antioch Review 48 (Winter 1990): 118.

  60. Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter (New York: HarperCollins), 1991.

  61. Richard Nicholls, “The Voices of the Survivors,” New York Times Book Review, 15 September 1991, 29.

  62. Charles E. May, “The Sweet Hereafter,Magill's Literary Annual 1992 (Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1992), 790.

  63. “Gripping”: Michiko Kakutani, “Small-Town Life after a Huge Calamity,” New York Times, 6 September 1991; “beautifully written”: Michael Boodro, review of The Sweet Hereafter, Vogue, September 1991, 388; “a very good book”: anonymous review of The Sweet Hereafter, New Yorker, 28 October 1991, 119; “a very accomplished book, well planned and well executed”: Ben McNally, review of The Sweet Hereafter, Quill & Quire, September 1991, 54.

  64. Anonymous review of The Sweet Hereafter, Kirkus Reviews, 15 June 1991, 742.

Henry Mayer (review date 8 March 1998)

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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; then I made the naive substitution of thinking they meant “hanged” and only gradually did it dawn on me that the expression was a grim and profane oath that meant, literally, damned by God and sent to roast in hell.

Nearly a century after the old soldier had risen up against slavery at Harpers Ferry, his very name remained a living curse in the South, and nearly half a century further on, his is still a name, like Lincoln's, permeated with the essence of the catastrophe we call the Civil War. Yet what is it about Brown's course of action—angry at the government for dishonoring its own principles, he formed a private militia and launched a violent attack upon federal property that left 17 people dead and ended with his execution after a highly publicized trial—that differentiates him from the convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh? What is the political and historical alchemy that converts terrorists into martyrs? At the intersection of ideology and violence, what distinguishes the route to fateful revolution from the dead-end of misguided, mad adventurism?

These questions have a foreign ring that may evoke in readers of a certain age memories of dormitory bull sessions about Che Guevara, the SDS Weathermen or the SLA gang that kidnapped Patricia Hearst. Yet they apply equally to the Stamp Act rioters, to partisans of slave revolt, to border warriors in Bleeding Kansas and, of course, to John Brown. Yet the sentimental strain in our culture—as manifested, say, in the work of Ken Burns or Shelby Foote or in the popularity of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain—has turned our thinking about the Civil War into a pageant of heroism and a threnody of grief that separates the act of sacrifice from the forces that ordained it. In Cloudsplitter, a brooding and ambitious novel set in the 1840s and '50s and focused on Brown and “the war before the War,” Russell Banks counters this indulgent view with a grim and compelling reminder that the Civil War was a tragedy rooted in slavery and race long before it became a calamity of flag and nationhood.

Cloudsplitter (the title refers to the mountain peak that dominates the landscape of Brown's homestead in a narrow valley of the Adirondacks, but the metaphor applies to the protagonist's titanic, heaven-storming ambition) is not a conventional historical novel of abundant atmosphere and little substance. It is instead a daring, though not entirely successful, blend of adventure and rumination that combines melodramatic fugitive slave chases in the stirring tradition of Uncle Tom's Cabin with the sullen father-son combat of A Long Day's Journey into Night.

As a novelist distinguished for his sympathetic portraits of the isolated and the disaffected (Rule of the Bone, Continental Drift) and communities bewildered by profound and fateful emotions (The Sweet Hereafter), Banks could be expected to bring scrupulous powers of observation and an abiding human sympathy to his story of an abolitionist family at war with a political culture that tolerates slaveholding. In this he does not disappoint. Cloudsplitter is a vibrant, out-sized, mesmerizing portrait of the mercurial Brown that reveals his charm as well as his piety, his compassion as well as his demonic wrath, his intellect as well as his willfulness. To watch Banks' John Brown stride across the Waterloo battlefield to discern the lessons of Napoleon's defeat, to stand with him as he reorganizes a faltering encampment in a whirlwind display of skilled craftsmanship and masterful direction, to listen to Brown read aloud the biblical account of Gideon's army as a series of tactical suggestions from the Lord himself is to immerse oneself in literary representation of the highest order.

In a prefatory note, however, Banks disavows any intention of revisionist biography or historical interpretation and insists that his book is “a work of the imagination” that must be read “solely as a work of fiction.” To explore the meaning of this injunction, it is necessary therefore to set aside both one's admiration for the imaginative power Banks has applied to the known facts about Brown's life and one's quibbles about minor inaccuracies and the chronological liberties he has taken. One must concentrate instead upon the invented psychological drama he has made of the novel by telling the story as a series of flashbacks in the voice of the old warrior's aged son, Owen, a tormented hermit, awash in guilt and self-pity, who considers himself “a garrulous apparition” and pours out his “confessions” in a purported series of letters to a research assistant for Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography. (Villard, who was the grandson of the abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison and later editor of The Nation, did write such a book, but Owen Brown was no help in it; he died in 1891 on his sheep farm in Altadena.)

Owen's story is the sad one of a boy who loses his mother at the age of 8 and in his loneliness becomes an “incorrigible and incompetent liar,” an upstart who permanently cripples his arm in a fall and considers it a punishment for Sabbath-breaking. He describes “a conscripted childhood,” in which the large Brown family is bent to its patriarch's desire to destroy slavery, much as Captain Ahab forged the Pequod's crew into a single force against the whale or a cult leader dominates his “family” to serve an idiosyncratic obsession. Yet Owen cannot rebel, for his father is not a Satanic monster but the Lord's agent in a holy crusade, against sin and, moreover, patient and loving enough to forgive Owen's loss of religious faith and accept his willingness to work for “Truth” alone. In the face of such suffocating virtue, Owen comes to feel like “a trapped animal,” an Isaac who will be sacrificed to his father's implacable God.

But Owen never resolves his conflict, and this grows tedious in the course of hundreds of pages of contradictory assertion. Verging occasionally into grandiosity in which he fancies himself the secret mainspring—the Iago of Brown's actions, Owen more frequently lapses into convoluted emotional episodes of forbidden feelings: sibling rivalry, sexual confusion and, most alarming, racial hostility. His unresolved adolescent anxieties persist into a stunted manhood and maliciously explode when his love-hate object, a young free black man, “shrivels” Owen with the contemptuous appraisal that he “ain't half the man his father is.” Frightened by his rage, Owen submits himself again to his father's control and becomes the Old Man's lieutenant in the cold-blooded massacre of slavery sympathizers in Kansas and the doomed fantasy of a slave revolt that turned into the botched raid at Harpers Ferry. These episodes are riveting as stories, but their dramaturgical power is blunted by their subordination to Owen's sorrowing lucubrations and a glowering pessimism about transcending the barriers of race even in a war against slavery.

In his previous books, Banks has revealed a large gift for first-person narrative, but Owen Brown is a muddled and unsympathetic creation whose voice is not adequate to his father's epic story. Adding the voices of the brothers who succeeded in establishing independent lives—John, who had a greater interest in the political middle-ground his father disdained, and Jason, who honored his ingrained pacifism and resisted the turn to violence—might have afforded a richer exploration of the issues of patrimony, of manhood, of vanguardism and the pace of social change than Owen's imagined travail allowed.

A historical novel should take us to the emotional core of an epoch that cannot be reached through empirical evidence alone, but it cannot do so by ignoring or distorting what is known, especially in this case, when the novel's psychodrama relies upon the borrowed cultural authority of the John Brown story to justify the reader's interest. Most fatally to the success of Cloudsplitter as a historical novel, however, Banks fails to distinguish the warped viewpoint that propels his protagonist to violence from the perspectives that determined other strategies of change. He has created in Owen Brown an unreliable historian who provides a very misleading picture of the abolitionist movement and gravely misstates the political nature of the Kansas crisis in order to justify the murders. The narrator, without demur from his creator, simplistically divides abolitionism into the macho, soldierly Brown and a bunch of pantywaist Quaker socialites, never acknowledging the heroic decades of courageous organizing that broke a long-sanctioned silence and made the abolition of slavery and the creation of black civil rights an urgent political issue long before John Brown became an activist in the late 1840s. It was the talking abolitionists, moreover, who transformed the executed John Brown, the failed leader of a sortie to establish a guerrilla republic of liberated slaves in the mountains of Virginia, into a Christ-figure whose sacrifice propelled public opinion into accepting the necessity of war against slavery.

As a narrator, Owen Brown misrepresents the underground work of rescuing fugitives as the only valid abolitionist work, greatly exaggerating in the process John Brown's actual participation as a “railroad” agent and unfairly making him out to be the only white abolitionist to retain the trust of black people. (At one point, the novel presents as authentic a tampered version of an actual Brown document, rewritten by Banks to make both the advocacy of violence and the alliance with black people more explicit than Brown's original.) Equally unfair is the insinuation that Frederick Douglass' 11th-hour refusal to join the revolt gave it the “Judas kiss” of doom and betrayal. As a set piece, however, the final discussion is a masterful scene in which the two men “wrestle like angels, as the one struggled to keep the other from martyrdom, and the other fought to convince the one to save him from martyrdom by joining him there.”

What is missing, finally, in Owen Brown's treatment is any sense of the political context of these dark and troubling events. He ignores the intellectual tension within abolitionism between the “soul force” of the Golden Rule and the revolutionary mandate of the Declaration of Independence. He neglects the political tension between the moderate, non-extensionist Free Soilers, Republicans who sought merely to contain slavery, and radical abolitionists who agitated for the immediate abolition of slavery everywhere. He erroneously portrays John Brown as a celebrated advocate of revolutionary violence from the Kansas murders onward, when in reality he was a practitioner of covert action who raised money for the Virginia scheme under the pretense of aiding Kansas and publicly dissembled about his role in the massacre at Pottawatomie.

Cloudsplitter does not carry the story to its fateful climax, a failing in a father-son drama in which Abraham, as it were, sacrifices himself. Though two of his brothers and one brother-in-law were to die at Harpers Ferry, Owen Brown, like Isaac, was let off. His father ordered him to guard their base camp, from which Owen effected an escape, evaded service in the Civil War and disappeared into the territory, becoming an anonymous “white man … an American without a history …” until his remorseful burden grew too great and prompted the double-barreled narrative that comprises Cloudsplitter. Like John Brown himself, this demanding and provocative novel is a protean, eloquent, fatalistic amalgam in which triumph and failure are hopelessly and forever entangled.

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

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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 murder of two people, one of them his father. But through a dozen novels and short story collections that have won him Guggenheim and NEA grants and a St. Lawrence Prize for fiction, Banks has made a life's work of charting the causes and effects of the terrible things “normal” men can and will do.

From the unnamed narrator of The Book of Jamaica (Houghton Mifflin, 1980), to Bob Dubois in Continental Drift (Harper & Row, 1985), to Nelson and Earl Painter in Success Stories (Harper & Row, 1986), to Bone in Rule of the Bone (HarperCollins, 1995), Banks's heroes are irresistibly compelled to wreck their own lives, and can't worry too much about who in their immediate vicinity they take with them. And whether they're cheating on wives or girlfriends, abandoning children, expressing frustration with their fists, playing with guns or drugs or drinking too much, Banks's excruciatingly hapless men are endowed with an endless stock of philosophical self-pity. Whatever they may do, these guys are always ready to forgive themselves.

Despite a clear-eyed view of their flaws, it seems as if their creator can't help but forgive them too. 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.

“I do have a very deep personal affection for the people that I write about and I don't want to betray them, I don't want to misrepresent them, condescend to them in any way,” Banks says. “Whenever it turns out that someone like Wade Whitehouse or Bob Dubois or a kid like Bone has read one of my books or a story, it's extremely gratifying. I feel a spark passing between us. It's something more than the kind of pleasure I can take from someone who has a lifetime subscription to The New Yorker.

Accomplished and articulate, and bearing some resemblance to the late-vintage Hemingway, Banks has clearly not based his desperate, dead-ended characters upon himself. But he comes by his knowledge of them firsthand. “Obviously there are links between my past and the pasts of characters in my books, but a lot of that is because you can shortcut your way to information,” he explains. “I know how it feels to be a young white male in America from the working class because I was one, so I can cut right to the chase if that's what I'm going to write about.”

Russell Banks was born in Barnstead, New Hampshire, in 1940, raised, he says, “by one of those working women with four kids” after his father left the family when he was very young. It was “the emotional chaos, the turbulence, even the violence” of his childhood, he feels, that led him to writing.

“I think that early on, storytelling and structuring experience and emotions through language became some kind of emotional stability and coherence,” he recalls. “It worked. As a kid, if I could tell myself or tell my younger brother what was going on in the family dynamic, or even escape from those conditions by fantasy, somehow it made life tolerable. I think that those patterns set so early that they probably shape the brain in some way and you're stuck with them later on when you no longer are in those conditions. There's nothing else to do with it so you might as well make art out of it.”

Banks began making art by painting and drawing, switching to poetry by the time he was 21 or 22, and publishing two books of verse before finally settling on fiction. Finding a home in prose, he recalls, was the serendipitous result of attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1960s.

“I was writing both fiction and poetry then, but at that period I became close friends with really good poets among my contemporaries—William Matthews, Charles Simic, and others who were my age and stage of development and were writing poetry that I couldn't write. It was simply better than anything I could do and nobody wants to be a minor poet before they're thirty.”

At the same time, an inclination toward fiction was becoming an internal one. His poems growing longer and increasingly narrative, Banks began to feel that his was a prose writer's esthetic. “One of the things you're doing in these apprentice years is mapping the outlines of your imagination,” he notes. “When you begin, your own imagination is really sort of terra incognita, you don't know what lives there and where the borders are, so you spend an awful lot of time just finding out what you can't do in order to determine what it is you can do.”

Banks has spent the past 30 years finding out and building upon what he can do well. In his first novel, Family Life (Avon, 1975; Sun & Moon Press, 1988), he introduced a sort of comic book version of the characters that would populate later books much more vividly—the unhappy, ineffectual mother, the violent and obtuse father and sons—in a modernist farce that plays out as if its author had been reading too much Beckett.

“I think that the shift in my approach to narrative over the years has been basically an expression of my own evolution as a person,” Banks points out. “When I was younger, I was much more concerned with—even obsessed with—form and structure, perhaps because I was insecure about my ability to control [them].” When his confidence in that area grew, he recalls, his focus shifted crucially toward the psychology of his characters. “Again, maybe that's because I was in my middle thirties and I was insecure about my ability to understand human beings in a deep enough way. In recent years, it's shifted again, more to the historical, social aspect of narrative and that may be because I'm at an age where I'm trying to consciously attain a broader view of material, see it in a wider context.”

One context in which Banks has long tried to understand his mostly blue-collar characters is work: the jobs they hold down, and how far those jobs do—and mostly don't—get them where they want to go. Stuck in the gray, slushy New England towns where they were born, Banks's men repair oil burners or plow roads, piling up debt and disappointment. Or they take off for Florida and the Caribbean, where their career options end up amounting to a choice between pushing a broom or trafficking in drugs and illegal immigrants.

Banks has spent most of his own working life teaching creative writing at places like Columbia and Princeton universities, and says teaching has allowed him to do something he loves while exercising a great measure of control over his time to write as well. Though he hasn't done blue-collar work since his early twenties, Banks never forgets the impact of employment on “what kind of power or sense of powerlessness” an individual has.

“If I'm going to be honest about a character, I've got to describe that person's work and acknowledge the ways in which it has shaped her or his life and body,” he says. “If you do some numbing, repetitive work twenty-five years of your life it's going to shape who you are. It is something that I think has to be attended to and it's not much attended to: how people make a living and what kind of living they make from a given piece of work, and how that impinges on their lives and determines their choices.”

That's a point tragically lost on Ron, the glossy lawyer who narrates the short story “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” Banks's brilliant and concise dissection of class misunderstanding in America, which appeared in Success Stories (Harper & Row, 1986). In a key encounter, Ron utterly fails to comprehend what it means for the homely Sarah Cole to spend her days filling cartons with TV Guides, and why her job makes her feel too “different” from Ron to jump into bed with him.

[Ron] picks up a TV Guide from the coffee table and flips through it, stops, runs a finger down the listings, stops, puts down the magazine and changes the channel. He does not once connect the magazine in his hand to the woman who has just left his apartment. … He'll think of the connection some other night, but by then the connection will be merely sentimental. It'll be too late for him to understand what she meant by “different.”

Another element of his characters' milieu that Banks hasn't shied away from depicting is violence. “It's there,” he insists. “Not to represent it would be to misrepresent the world. I might be more sensitized to it than some because I was raised in a violent environment but you know you don't have to look very far to see it everywhere around you.”

When you see it in a Banks novel, violence is tawdry, not titillating, whether it leaves the protagonist essentially unscathed, as in The Book of Jamaica, or destroys him, as in Continental Drift. It's interesting that Banks credits his unromantic take on violence to women: his mother, his four daughters, and close friends he's had as an adult. “I've tended to see the world through women's eyes, and that has made me more alert to how violent our day-to-day world really is. It's easy to ritualize and in that way hide violence, through sports or hunting, or even to estheticize it and in that way not see it. [Violence] doesn't seem to be diminishing even as we become a more aware society.”

Despite his access to a female point of view, women themselves tend to be shadowy figures in Banks's fiction, distant and baffling magnets for male longing and rage. An exception among his books, in this and several other ways, is The Sweet Hereafter (HarperCollins, 1991), Banks's wrenching account of a school bus accident and its devastating aftermath in a tiny upstate New York town.

The novel includes what is probably the sole successful marriage in a Banks novel, albeit one that exists only in retrospect, Vietnam veteran Billy Ansel's remembered romance with his now-dead wife. But more to the point, the story is told by four fully realized voices, two of them female: the middle-aged bus driver, Dolores Driscoll, and the teenaged Nichole Burnell, permanently wheelchair-bound as a result of the accident.

Though he had tried his hand at using multiple, and female, narrators only once before, in the satiric Hamilton Stark (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), Banks says employing them in The Sweet Hereafter wasn't a big stretch for him.

“I saw the story as a parable about the loss of children in our culture at large that I think has occurred over the last half century,” he explains. “I approached the school bus accident with a desire to explore it as a metaphor, so I had to have a kind of chorus of speakers rather than a single narrator and I had to locate the virtues or the failings of a character within a community. Necessarily that would involve my speaking through female characters, or having female characters speak through me.”

Thinking the book over now, Banks says it is the women's voices that ring most true for him. “The voices that have moments of inauthenticity are the male voices, and I think that generally that's true, the characters whose voices are least like my own come to my ear much more clearly and uncluttered.”

Nevertheless, for his next novel, Rule of the Bone, Banks had to struggle to hear the unfamiliar voice of his protagonist, the adolescent, homeless Bone whose story is another sad tale about the loss of children and childhood in 1990s America. Along with building up a collection of alternative rock CDs, and spending time in a tattoo parlor, Banks says getting close to Bone meant listening hard for the cadences of a character whose relationship to language was far more “skeptical, testing, and vernacular” than his own.

His just-published Cloudsplitter took him on further adventures in language. This 800 page historical novel required six years of writing—instead of his usual one or two—and much research to tell the story of John Brown, the abolitionist who led a raid on an arsenal at Harpers Ferry as part of a planned slave uprising, and was hanged for treason in 1859.

“I got intrigued by John Brown initially because he's buried down the road from my house in upstate New York, and so are eleven others who were killed at Harpers Ferry or executed afterwards. That was the initial connection and it gradually became an obsession,” Banks says.

The book is narrated by Owen Brown, John Brown's son, who recounts the events of the story from a distance of 50 years. “I had to move my ear to where I could hear a nineteenth-century elderly man talking, a man born in 1824 with little more than a few years' education who spoke a workingman's English.”

Banks went digging for that English in informal writings from the 1800s, such as diaries and letters, and listened for its echoes in the speech of Adrian Edmonds, a man in his 80s who lives near Banks in Keene, New York. “He went to work at the age of about ten, clearing forests with men who were born somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century,” Banks explains. “His spoken English is wonderful, slightly odd in the contemporary American context, but it has the sound and the inflection and the grammar of mid-nineteenth-century American English. Throughout the writing of the book, I used it almost as a kind of template against which I could try to fit whatever I was putting on the page.”

John Brown's story gave Banks a wealth of personalities and themes to maneuver on the page. “This is a complicated character dealing with really basic issues of race and violence and religion. Brown stands right there where all those fractures in society cross: the racial fracture, class fracture, religious fracture, they all cross right under his feet,” Banks says. Working with so much historical material, he recalls, the hardest thing was deciding what to leave out. “It's difficult first of all to know what of all that mass of material is useful to you as a storyteller and then to privilege yourself to go ahead and take it and leave the rest, to know that your purposes are strictly the purposes of a storyteller and not a historian and to constantly be aware of that. I think that's probably difficult for most people who write using historical materials.”

Cloudsplitter presented Banks with a whole new set of challenges; it also thoroughly exhausted him. He's currently taking some time off from novel writing, working instead on projects like the text for a book of photographs by Arturo Patten that will be published in France, and the libretto for an opera, “things which, when I begin, I can already see the ending. The trouble with a novel is when you begin, you don't know if you're going to be through in a year or you're going to have to march all the way to Russia and back.”

He has also been involved as a consultant in adapting several of his novels for the screen. A film based upon Affliction, directed by Paul Schrader, is currently seeking distribution, while one based on The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, opened in theaters last November after winning the Grand and International Critics Prizes at Cannes. A third film, using Banks's own script version of Continental Drift, is to be directed by Agnieszka Holland.

Seeing his books transformed into cinema, Banks is having a rare experience for a writer: he actually likes the movies. “It's very unusual, I know,” he admits. When filmmakers adapt novels. Banks says, what they typically edit out of their screenplays “is the moral center of the work, and that's what makes the work coherent to a reader, makes it meaningful in any way. What both Shrader and Egoyan have done is preserve the moral center of each of these books in the movies.”

Having taught creative writing for decades, Banks says he believes that the best writing teachers are those with the best memories of their own apprenticeships. Based upon his own early days, he concludes that there are three things a student writer needs to find most: “a mentor, peers, and a way to stay out of the economy, for a few years at least. What I try to do as a teacher is help students create those conditions.”

Banks is now in the process of retiring from Princeton, where he has been since 1982. He views the end of his teaching career as a mixed blessing, he says, “because I've taught for so long and I've enjoyed it, I've been very fortunate to have great students and colleagues who are close friends and an inspiration for me. On the other hand, it's liberating too.”

Once free of teaching, Banks and his wife, Chase Twichell, a poet, will spend more time in upstate New York, where Banks works in a renovated sugarhouse about a hundred yards from their home. “It's just a nice big square room with a porch overlooking a brook and I work there every morning until lunchtime and actually usually hang out there in the afternoons as well, doing other kinds of things, letter-writing, working on various projects. That's really my place.”

His own place is something Banks feels is essential for him as a writer: a laptop computer on a train or in a cafe just won't do. “I really have to have a workplace that's constant and routinized in my life so every day I can delude myself into thinking I have a real job and go there and do whatever it is I do,” he says.

It's having this room of his own and the ability to do what he chooses to do in it that more than anything else sets Banks apart from the men he writes about. “What they're striving for is control over their own destinies, and I suppose that to some considerable degree I have obtained that through writing,” he reflects. “When I was a kid and in my twenties, imagining my future such as I could, my fantasy was that I would grow old and be able to spend my time reading and writing. That seemed to me the most desirable middle and old age—or even youth, for that matter—and that's basically what I'm facing now. So in a sense, my dreams have come true. It is exactly what I want to do now.”

Alfred Kazin (review date 9 April 1998)

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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 Shenandoah meet.

“In the moment of their junction,” Jefferson wrote in Notes on Virginia (1785), “they rush together against the mountain, render it asunder, and pass off to the sea.” He called the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” and was confident that “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

What excited Jefferson was Nature charging about on land so near his own, erupting and breaking through the expected. John Brown, the subject of Russell Banks's new novel, [Cloudsplitter,] had not chosen Harpers Ferry for the “spectacle” it presented, but he certainly regarded himself as a force of nature answerable only to God. He believed that his attack on Federal authority would in an instant throw the slave South into convulsions; he planned to pass out the captured arms to the many runaway slaves who would join him. After John Brown's raid, the final outrage to the South would be Abraham Lincoln's election the next year, which led to secession and the Civil War.

War, in the name of the immediate total abolition of slavery, was Brown's ultimate purpose. This alone explains why, after losing two of his sons and most of his fellow raiders, black and white, in the attack on Harpers Ferry, and aware that the few survivors would be hanged after him, he went to his execution in December with seeming alacrity. Killing had become as natural to him as prayer. When Kansas was opened to “squatter sovereignty,” the territory became a battlefield between Free-Soilers and advocates of slavery fighting to determine its future character as a state. John Brown, a failed businessman in several states, legally a bankrupt, had enthusiastically thrown himself, with his sons, into the fight over “bleeding Kansas.” He was so dominating that he became “Captain” John Brown, then “Osawatomie” John Brown, after the river in Kansas near which he and his sons had, in 1856, taken five pro-slavery settlers out of their homes and hacked them to death.

He was sure that in the national disturbance over slavery he alone knew how to bring slavery to an end. Impatiently dismissing all peaceful abolitionists except his six financial backers in New England, Brown was confident that after he took over the arsenal at Harpers Ferry the great mass of armed slaves ready to join him would tear the South apart and free all the other slaves. Shelby Foote in his three-volume history of the Civil War quotes Brown as boasting, “One man and God can overturn the universe.” His farm at North Elba, New York, in the vast empty spaces of the Adirondacks, had long been a way station on the underground railway speeding individual slaves to Canada. But whether or not Brown actually believed his attack was enough to unleash a mass insurrection of slaves, this was his declared purpose. He even talked of the self-emancipated slaves forming a state of their own, somewhere in the West. There would be a great future for blacks in America.

Brown had pleaded with the leading black abolitionist Frederick Douglass to join him, but Douglass warned him that taking over Harpers Ferry would result in a blood bath. In the event, the occupation of the arsenal lasted thirty-six hours and seventeen people lost their lives during it. Stephen B. Oates summed up the first human cost of the raid in the most objective biography of Brown, To Purge This Land with Blood (1970). “Three townsmen, a slaveholder, and one Marine had been killed, and nine men had been wounded. Ten of Brown's own recruits, including two of his sons, had been killed or fatally injured. Five raiders had been captured.” The rest escaped into the Maryland mountains, but two of these were captured. Five men escaped for good, including Brown's son Owen.

Not a single slave broke away to join them. Brown had taken hostages from the town and had left three of his band outside the arsenal to await the slaves they expected, but the three men were immediately assailed by Southerners rushing into the fray. Then US marines (a civilian named John Wilkes Booth was among them), led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, broke into the arsenal to capture a badly wounded Brown and the few survivors. Brown's bearing at his trial impressed everyone, but he was soon sentenced to hang. As Brown dropped to his death, Lee vindictively cried out, “Thus perish all enemies of the human race!” After the execution a jailer unfolded a slip of paper Brown had left behind. It was his deepest belief. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Not many people had known of John Brown before he went to Kansas to keep it from being overrun by pro-slavery forces. In Charlestown prison (now in West Virginia) awaiting execution, he became a world celebrity. Victor Hugo pleaded with “America” to release this second Christ. Emerson said Brown, “if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.” Emerson's son Edward, one of the few who went to hear Thoreau publicly read his “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (he called Brown “an angel of light”), said Thoreau read it “as if it burned him.”

The most charitable thing those hostile to Brown would ever say about him was that he was “mad,” and from a family disposed to insanity. This is still the posthumous verdict in Robert Penn Warren's John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929) and Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962). After his execution Brown became the everlasting martyr who virtually all by himself had set out to free all the slaves. Salmon P. Chase, a leading Free-Soiler who was to become Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury and later Chief Justice, said of Brown, “How sadly misled by his own imaginations! How rash—how mad—how criminal thus to stir up insurrection which if successful would deluge the land with blood & make void the fairest hopes of mankind!” Yet Chase could not forget “the unselfish desire to set free the oppressed—the bravery—the humanity towards his prisoners which defeated his purposes—! It is a tragedy which will supply themes for novelists & poets for centuries—Men will condemn his act & pity his fate forever.” And he concluded, as those hostile to Brown seldom do, “How stern will be the reprobation which must fall on the great wrong of forcing slavery upon Kansas which began it all and upon slavery itself which underlies it all.”

Not many Union soldiers went to war hoping or expecting to end slavery, but such was the power of Brown's name that marching to war they gave “holy” meaning to what had originally been a sardonic song about a sergeant also named John Brown—

John Brown's body lies
          a-mould'ring in the grave
John Brown's body lies
          a-mould'ring in the grave
John Brown's body lies
          a-mould'ring in the grave
His soul is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
…
Now has come the glorious jubilee,
when all mankind are free.

Melville, in his poems of the Civil War, Battle-Pieces, called Brown “The Portent”:

Hidden in the cap
          Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
          Shenandoah!
But the streaming beard is shown
          (Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

The historical and imaginative literature about John Brown is enormous, embittered, usually extreme. Picking up still another novel about him, Russell Banks's immensely long Cloudsplitter, one can hardly help wondering what new version of the ever wrathful and violent Brown will emerge from this enormous book. Banks calls it “a work of the imagination,” but it necessarily owes so much to Oswald Garrison Villard's many volumes, his indispensably basic biography John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910), that Banks cleverly opens his novel just after Villard's assistant, a Miss Mayo, has been trying to interview Owen Brown, the one son who survived the raid on Harpers Ferry, and who for many years has been a recluse tending his sheep on a hill in Altadena, California.

Owen has rudely turned Miss Mayo off, admits to being a very complicated character, still harbors conflicting feelings, thoughts, and “secrets” pertaining to his celebrated father. But now, apologizing to Miss Mayo, he becomes the narrator of the novel, unrolling a past which he dominates by reason of his sensitivity as much as John Brown does by his personal war on slavery. Owen is less witness to his father's life than—by way of contrast to his monolithic father—an everlasting puzzle to himself. This does not make him interesting, least of all when he thinks he has “betrayed” his father by not sharing his motives—and also by surviving. Though he promises to unravel Brown and to “correct” the established record, he seems to have as much trouble understanding Brown as we do today.

What really happened at the Pottawatomie massacre? Why did old Brown go down into Harpers Ferry and stay there long after he could have come out alive? Why did he take his sons and his sons-in-law and all those other fine young men to certain death with him? How did his third son, Owen Brown, come to be the one son who escaped? All these inexplicable events have been explained hundreds of times, hundreds of ways, some of them ingenious, some foolish, all of them plausible. But all without the backing of truth.

Owen, still alive in 1910, is for Banks our contemporary, our double—agnostic, unsure, neurotic, a killer in Kansas like his father but someone who never really holds his father's vengeful faith or has any inner assurance of his moral supremacy. This is his real “secret,” his “crime,” his guilt—not his passing responsibility for the death of a black friend. In Banks's novel, the account of Owen's experience is presented as the untold story we never knew until now. This doesn't work because, with the other principal characters in Banks's novel, Owen is a pitiful fellow—abjectly dependent on “Old Brown” and incoherent in explaining his inner turmoil. Yet it is Owen who waveringly dominates the novel, which ends with his own escape from Harpers Ferry.

This leaves out John Brown's trial, the great, lying speech he gave in court about his nonviolence in fighting slavery, and his expressions of pleasure in the beauty of the country (he had never noticed it before) as he is driven to his execution sitting on the casket in which he will be buried. The book brilliantly comes alive only in the violent scenes that are the central parts of Brown's story—his Kansas killings and his attack on Harpers Ferry. Russell Banks is a talented and agile novelist who moves easily from one American subject to another; he is strong in short descriptive effects but weak in creating characters equal to his larger design for the book.

In his best-known novel, Continental Drift (1985), the ever-hopeless Bob Dubois, a repairman of oil burners in New Hampshire who drags his family to Florida only to end up a total disaster, is abstractly teamed (they never meet) with a pathetic Haitian widow who has paid everything she has to be smuggled into Florida and is washed up on the shore without her family and with only her old African-Caribbean gods to protect her. Bob and Vanise are each so desolate and desolating that Banks has to tell us in an opening “Invocation” and a closing “Envoi” what he had in mind for them, for his book, and for our everlasting struggle with race in America.

It's not memory you need, it's clear-eyed pity and hot, old-time anger and a Northern man's love of the sun, it's a white Christian man's entwined obsession with race and sex and a proper middle-class American's shame for his nation's history. … With a story like this, you want an accounting to occur, not a recounting, and a presentation, not a representation, which is why it's told the way it's told.

Actually, there's no “accounting” for what happens to the characters (all of them victims) in Continental Drift, just a vaguely diffused compassion. And though we might expect that a novel about so tremendous (and somehow improbable) an actor in history as John Brown would attempt some kind of “accounting,” in Cloudsplitter this holy murderer remains unaccountable.

John Brown was more than a “Cloudsplitter,” the nickname of a mountain dominating his farm at North Elba in the Adirondacks. Clouds do not always split into bad weather, and if they do the world is not everlastingly changed. Brown certainly helped to change this country forever. History is cruel enough; he made it crueler. He had the violence of the totally engaged revolutionary, the terrorist as revolutionary; he was a vehemently purposeful terrorist like Robespierre and Lenin, sure that the killings he authorized and committed would erase the “sin” of slavery (and many a slaveholder as well) and thus bring in the ensuing world of “virtue” (as Robespierre called it) whose coming justified endless terror.

Banks says his novel “should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a version or interpretation of history.” Impossible. You cannot base a novel on so drastically committed and still controversial a figure—Brown more than any other individual enraged the South—and not give us something new to think about. Every historical novel, if the history in it is felt by the novelist at all, must be, however slightly, a new “version or interpretation.” Banks gives us the standard John Brown—a man whose religious fanaticism is difficult for us to understand. We see the father always through the son. This actually puts more emphasis on Owen Brown's inner conflicts than on John Brown's sure belief that he was acting for God. What is missing in Banks's novel is Brown's driving, maddening, murderous conviction that he alone knew, in Lenin's fatal phrase, “what is to be done.”

The world had entirely to be made over. Then emancipated blacks would come to love whites as their natural brothers. What we get from Brown in Cloudsplitter is a lot of speeches about his affection for blacks, his Calvinist belief in the predestination of the individual. What we do not get to see is the brave new world that the genuine revolutionary envisions in his ecstatic embrace of power over other lives. Brown really believed that his violent hatred of slavery would bring the first fraternity between blacks and whites.

Instead, John Brown is the one person who can be clearly charged with helping to start the Civil War. And the war alone led to the end of slavery.

Lawrence Hill (review date 13 April 1998)

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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 violent and uncompromising anti-slavery advocate in U.S. history—the novelist has also chosen to tell the story from the vantage point of the main character's son, Owen. That strategy brings the reader within intimate reach of John Brown—close enough to underline, as only a family member can do, the gap between a man's public victories and private failures.

The opening pages find Owen an old and dying man, living alone in 1900 in a barren cabin in California. A biographer has approached him, seeking information about his father. What emerges from Owen's first-person account is a sad memoir of how he was unable to create a life for himself under the shadow of a domineering, charismatic father. In his early years, Owen shares neither John Brown's religious zeal nor his dedication to the overthrow of slavery. He wants a simple, ordinary existence. He wants a woman to love. “I was … precariously balanced between opposing commitments which were set to create the shape of the rest of my life,” Owen recalls, “and I knew that not to choose between them would lead me inescapably to a resolution that expressed, not my will, but Father's.”

And what a will John Brown had. As Banks ably demonstrates. Brown went immeasurably further than simply giving up his own life to fight against American slavery. He raised thousands of dollars for abolition, but condemned his two wives and 20 children to decades of poverty. He drew into battle sons and sons-in-law, five of whom died as a result. He was responsible for the deaths of a dozen or more other followers and of numerous enemies—some of whom were dragged half-naked from their homes and hacked to death.

In a nation that tends to elevate its heroes to mythic status, Brown remains one of America's most controversial figures. He has been depicted both as a courageous hero and a bumbling madman. Banks shows Brown to be a useless businessman and a negligent husband and father, but far from insane. His only passion is to end slavery, and he lives and dies pursuing that passion.

In direct, transparent prose, Banks creates a complex psychological portrait of Brown. He whips Owen for a minor domestic transgression, then places the whip in his son's hands and demands that the whipping be reciprocated. He believes that God speaks directly to him. At one point, moments after Brown and his sons carry out a brutal massacre of pro-slavery advocates in Kansas, Brown attempts to console a weeping son named Fred. “God will forgive thee, son. I have prayed and listened with all my mind and heart to the Lord, and I know that we have done His will in this business.”

Banks depicts Brown as so unacquainted with compromise that he shuns everyone—even abolitionists—who rejects his view that only violence can overthrow slavery. At one point, near the end of an exhausting winter trek to take over a farming operation in New York state, Brown and his wife and children are sheltered by a prejudiced farmer named Caleb Partridge. To show the abolitionist's calculating nature, Banks has Brown stay up half the night, querying his host about his views on race and slavery. The next day, as he and his family leave the man who helped them. Brown concludes: “Somewhere along the line, I fear we'll have to cut him down.”

Brown's devotion to his cause culminated in his 1859 attack—with Owen, two other sons and 18 more men (two of them Canadians)—on a U.S. weapons arsenal and armory in Harpers Ferry, Va. The goal was to steal rifles, provoke slaves into running off their plantations and enlist black and white men in guerrilla warfare against plantation owners. Brown took control of the Harpers Ferry arsenal for a day or so. But once in town, he squandered the element of surprise and dug in to shoot it out with militiamen and U.S. troops. This final section of the novel unfolds too quickly, and its dramatic power is weakened because Owen is absent from the heart of the action, observing it all from the safety of a distant treetop.

In the end, most of the Harpers Ferry raiders—including sons Watson and Oliver—died either in the attack or, like John Brown himself, were hanged after trial. As a military strategist, Brown may have been gravely inept, but he did drive the United States one big step closer towards civil war and the abolition of slavery.

Cloudsplitter, a profoundly moving novel despite the disappointing final scene, illustrates that people of great accomplishments are not necessarily great people. Banks deftly dramatizes John Brown's commitment to unshackling African-Americans, and at the same time laments that, in the process, he destroyed the lives of those around him.

James M. McPherson (review date May 1998)

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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 lightning strikes against pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and whose thunderbolt descent on Harpers Ferry, in 1859, lit flames of civil war that were not fully quenched even at Appomattox, six years later. Russell Banks has constructed this complex narrative on two levels. The first is the story of John Brown and his large family from the 1830s to the moment of his defeat at Harpers Ferry. The second and more profound level consists of a prolonged meditation on the interrelationships of blacks and whites and fathers and sons.

The first-person narrator is a fictionalized Owen Brown, John Brown's third son and his principal lieutenant in the Kansas wars. The story takes the form of autobiographical notes compiled by Owen in 1899 for Katherine Mayo, the research assistant of Oswald Garrison Villard, who published in 1910 what still stands as the fullest biography of John Brown. The knowledgeable reader will recognize how Banks has employed novelistic license to describe events that never happened, to place Owen at scenes where in reality he was not present, and to date his composition of these notes eight years after the real Owen died. But of course this is a work of fiction, not history, and these contrivances enable Banks to construct a version of “truth” beyond that of literal history.

John Brown was an Old Testament warrior-prophet transplanted into the nineteenth century. He believed in a God of wrath and justice. He also considered himself God's instrument to free the slaves and punish their owners for the sin of holding human beings in bondage. One of his favorite biblical passages was from Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” Brown possessed a powerful personality that enabled him to dominate his seven grown sons, most of whom became soldiers in his war against slavery and three of whom were killed in that war. Brown's strange charisma also won other allies, both black and white, who followed him to death and martyrdom at Harpers Ferry or provided him with financial support for his armed crusade against the pro-slavery power that dominated Congress, courts, the presidency, and the Army in the 1850s.

Many people then and later believed that John Brown was insane. This novel, however, conveys the message that Brown was insane only if slavery and white supremacy were sane. As Owen expresses it, his father had a capacity singular among white men to see the world from the black man's point of view. From that perspective the insane became sane, and vice versa. “Something deep within [John Brown's] soul, regardless of his own skin color … went out to the souls of American Negroes,” Owen writes,

so that he was able to ally himself with them in their struggle against slavery and American racialism, not merely because he believed they were in the right, but because he believed that somehow he himself was one of them. … Father's progression from activist to martyr, his slow march to willed disaster, can be viewed, not as a descent into madness, but as a reasonable progression—especially if one consider the political strength of those who in those days meant to keep chattel slavery the law of the land. … due to our obsession, we were, as it were, insane. Which to the Negroes, to Lyman, made us perfectly comprehensible and trustworthy—sane.

The Lyman in this quotation is Lyman Epps, a free black farmer and a neighbor of the Browns' at North Elba, where the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith had granted land to blacks and to John Brown to establish a kind of exemplary interracial rural community. From North Elba, Epps and the Browns carry escaping slaves to Canada on the Underground Railroad from 1850 to 1855, when most of the Browns go to the Kansas territory. Epps was an actual person, but in this novel he looms larger than he did in real life. He plays a pivotal role in Owen Brown's self-awakening, which even more than John Brown's progression to martyrdom is the central theme of the novel.

Owen wishes to transcend his whiteness and, like his father, enter into the soul of blackness. But in the presence of blacks he cannot forget his color, which “angered me in a way that left me secretly ashamed.” Owen and Lyman, portrayed here as being about the same age, become close friends. But Owen realizes, in a sort of shameful epiphany, that he has fallen in love with Lyman's wife, Susan—an emotion that, as he will come to realize, is really a displacement of his love for Lyman. Consumed by guilt, he flails himself and experiences a surge of hatred for Lyman, which produces another round of racial guilt that is purged only when, in a climactic scene. Lyman accidentally shoots and kills himself in circumstances that Owen could have prevented if he had acted in time.

Owen thus convinces himself that he is a murderer and can atone for this atrocious act only by becoming the cold-blooded killer of slave owners and destroyer of slavery that he believes his father wants him to become. “I was the man,” Owen writes.

who had never been able to forget that Lyman, while he lived, was black. Thus, until this moment. I had never truly loved him. He was a dead man now—finally, a man of no race. And as surely as if I had pulled the trigger myself, I was the man, the white man, who, because of Lyman's color and mine, had killed him. It was as if there had been no other way for me to love him.

There was nothing for love, now, but all-out war against the slavers. … Father would be my North Star. … I had become outwardly a hard man, a grim: silent warrior in my father's army, soon to be a killer more feared by the slavers for his cold, avenging spirit than any Free-Soil man in all of Kansas. More feared even than Father.

This passage suggests another dimension of Owen's self-awakening—his contrapuntal dependent-independent relationship with his father. Here Banks hints at an Oedipal interpretation, but he never develops it. Owen's mother died when he was eight, a devastating experience, and Owen resented his father's marrying again even as he experienced overwhelming love for his father, who forgave his youthful sins: “It was as if his words had cleansed me, for at once I felt uplifted and strong again. Whatever Father wished me now to do. I would do without argument, without hesitancy, without fear.”

Instead of Oedipus, the Old Testament stories of Job and of Abraham and Isaac become the models for this father-son relationship. God tested Job's faith by letting Satan take everything from him—his wealth, his servants, his family, his health. Yet Job refused to curse God, and the Lord rewarded him by restoring health, wealth, and family.

The figure of Job was, of course, like no one so much as Father himself. As Job stood to God, Father did also. My terrible understanding was that I. too, was like no one so much as Job. Not, however, in my relation to God: but in my relation to Father.

Owen tries repeatedly to break free of his father's domination, to become his own man, like his older brothers Jason and John Jr., but he cannot. Like Isaac, he is compelled to obey his father, even if his father is commanded by the Lord to slay him as a sacrifice.

The death of Lyman Epps, by compelling Owen to become a killer of slave owners to atone for his sin, seems for a while to have reversed the relationship of father and son. When the time comes for revenge against pro-slavery depredations in Kansas, it is Owen who ruthlessly instigates the cold-blooded murder of five settlers in the infamous Pottawatomie massacre. John Brown was beset with indecision, so “I reached forward and banged roughly on the door” of the first victim's cabin; “I kicked it and swiftly put my shoulder into it”; “I remember raising the blade of my sword … and then I brought it down and buried it in the skull,” and so on for two pages (emphasis added). “And Father? Where was Father? All the while, he stood away from us, and he alone did not use his sword. He watched.”

Shortly before Lyman Epps shoots himself, he tells Owen that Owen isn't half the man his father is. But after Pottawatomie “I now found myself twice the man my father was.” Yet in another ironic twist Pottawatomie galvanizes John Brown into becoming a fearsome guerrilla warrior, “so that before long it was no longer required of me to goad or brace him in the least, and in fact I found myself barely able to keep pace with him.”

The final eighty pages of the novel, culminating in the Harpers Ferry raid, are something of an anticlimax, in contrast to the raid's climactic status in the history of the real John Brown. This anticlimax is important mainly for Owen's “betrayal” of his father and those brothers who died or were captured at Harpers Ferry. Left behind at the farm where the raiders holed up while they prepared for the assault. Owen is to take charge of arming the slaves who his father expects will flock to the banner of insurrection. When the assault collapses in disastrous failure and no slaves appear. Owen alone among the Browns escapes and survives to tell the tale. When he fails to join his father and brothers in Harpers Ferry, becoming instead an Isaac making his escape while “my father, Father Abraham [, was] making his terrible, final sacrifice to his God,” it was “as if, after a lifetime bound to my father's fierce will and companionship by heavy steel manacles and chains. I had watched them come suddenly unlocked, and I had simply, almost casually, pitched them aside.”

Of course it did not actually happen that way. Owen could have done nothing to save his father and brothers. And many other crucial events in the novel did not occur as portrayed, or never occurred at all. Lyman Epps did not shoot himself: indeed, he sang John Brown's favorite hymns at Brown's funeral, in North Elba. For me as a historian to point this out is not to criticize Russell Banks as a novelist. In an “Author's Note,” Banks states clearly that he has “altered and rearranged” historical events and characters “to suit the strict purposes of storytelling. … Accordingly, the book should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a version or interpretation of history.” Fair enough. Unlike some of my literal-minded colleagues, who grind their teeth in exasperation at every departure from fact in a historical novel. I am quite willing to recognize—and to learn from—the novelist's license to reconstruct the past in the interests of a reality deeper than literal fact.

But I do confess annoyance at the numerous minor historical errors in Cloudsplitter that have no bearing whatsoever on the development of the author's story and would harm nothing if they were corrected. Such errors seem to indicate a certain indifference to the careful research that should underlie historical fiction. One or two or even half a dozen mistakes of this sort would be negligible, but the large number herein become a vexation. To mention but a few: the number of slaves in 1859 was four million, not three; Martin Van Buren did not establish the National Bank but helped to destroy it; John Brown was executed on December 2, 1859, not December 12; William Lloyd Garrison was not a Quaker: Franklin Sanborn could not have been an editor of The Atlantic Monthly in 1850 or 1851, because the magazine was founded in 1857; none of the federal troops in Kansas in 1856 were conscripts: Sharps rifles were manufactured by a private firm in Hartford, not by the government in Harpers Ferry; and Lewis Washington, one of the hostages captured by the Harpers Ferry raiders, was a collateral rather than a direct descendant of George Washington. Finally, Owen repeatedly refers to Oswald Garrison Villard, for whom this “Secret History” of John Brown is intended, as “Professor Villard” of Columbia University. Villard was a journalist, and a proprietor and an editor of The Nation and The New York Evening Post, but never a professor at Columbia or any other university.

For most readers, however, such petty errors will not detract from the powerful passages and profound insights in this novel. It humanizes John Brown, a figure all too often demonized or idolized in history as well as in fiction. Our understanding of this tragic era in the American experience will never be quite the same again.

Joyce Appleby (review date 22 May 1998)

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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, anti-slavery societies popped up everywhere—North and South. Taking seriously the natural-rights philosophy articulated in the Declaration of Independence, Northern reformers began agitating for the repeal of the state laws that had created property in human beings. A system of coerced labour which had been introduced into the British colonies with scarcely a murmur of opposition suddenly appeared like a stain, a blot on the escutcheon of the republican honour of the United States.

From the simple preamble to the Massachusetts state constitution to the intricate legislation providing for gradual emancipation passed in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, one by one, the Northern states found ways to end slavery in the years between 1780 and 1804, dramatizing as nothing else could have done the people's new legislative sovereignty.

This first emancipation movement gave thousands of self-liberating slaves a destination in their flight from the South, and laid the basis for America's free black population which tripled between 1790 and 1810. Despite vigorous opposition from slaveholders, what had earlier appeared impractical, if not impossible, was achieved. In states like New York, where one quarter of the labourers of Manhattan were enslaved persons, abolition represented the most peaceful intrusion on private property in the annals of self-government.

Signalling a sudden awakening from the slumber of thoughtless toleration, this outpouring of anti-slavery zeal in the North was an ominous development at a time when so few sentimental ties existed to bind the regions of the United States into a national union. Rid of the incubus of slavery, Northerners could take the moral high ground when events pushed the topic into public notice, as with the Haitian revolution or Congressional debates on fugitive slaves laws. Wary of such a contentious issue, national leaders promoted a live-and-let-live attitude towards Southern slavery, working out a series of intricate compromises whenever the subject came up. Better, they said, to concentrate the country's energies on bringing the continent under American dominion.

Ah, there was the rub. The westward movement of American settlers pushed to the fore the question of slavery's spread, especially after the Mexican-American War brought Texas and California into the union. By the 1850s, settlers were ready to move on to the land of the Louisiana Purchase—what Jefferson in 1803 had called the Empire for Freedom. The bearable friction of an earlier period became unbearable; every move in the struggle to bar new slave states added combustible material to the incendiary issue.

Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, but he loved the union more. Throughout his political ascent, he tacked before the winds of moral complacency, seeking a sure ground where he and the new Republican Party could stand. He found it in opposition to the expansion of slavery. Lincoln was a temporizer, but not a moral eunuch like his opponent, Stephen Douglas, who went about the country saying that he didn't care if the people voted slavery up or voted slavery down as long as they had a chance to exercise their “popular sovereignty”. Douglas successfully championed legislation which opened up the Territory of Kansas to settlement without the customary prohibition of slaves, putting at risk the successful containment of “the peculiar institution”.

William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery Abolitionist, hated slavery even more than he loved the union. He outraged crowds by burning copies of the US Constitution to demonstrate that any document that lent support to slavery deserved contempt. But much as he hated slavery, he confined himself to organizing anti-slavery militants through The Liberator and his public lectures.

John Brown, the historical figure at the centre of Russell Banks's new novel, Cloudsplitter, hated slavery, and he also hated temporizers. He barely tolerated Abolitionists, who only talked about ending slavery. For years, he and his sons risked life and limb, helping self-liberating slaves reach Canada through the so-called “underground railroad”.

Fanaticism does not travel well through time. The impulse to throw oneself in front of a train of evils speeding along the rough tracks of history comes to few. Reading about one such fanatic when the evil he stalked has long since hit time's dustbin does not immediately appeal, but Banks's storytelling powers are such that Brown's world slowly emerges, bringing with it an understanding of the moral milieu which nurtured his dreams and fortified his followers. In Cloudsplitter, Banks gives us the life of an avenging angel, and Old Testament prophet, and a monomaniacal terrorist, all rolled up into a vivid characterization of John Brown.

His Bible, read with avidity every day, opened up philosophy and literature to Brown as it closed off any other source of human understanding, its stories offering him practical wisdom, its observations a fund of moral precepts, most importantly the injunction to combat sin whole-soully. Brown was also a day-dreamer, a man whose fantasies plucked him out of the nineteenth century and threw him back into the age of fire-and-brimstone retribution.

In many ways, Brown was a typical Yankee—that stereotype parodied on the contemporary stage as Brother Jonathan, delivering endless cant in a nasal twang. An attentive provider, Brown worked assiduously as a farmer, grazier and tanner. A patriarchal family man, he fathered twenty children with two wives. Keen to prosper, he got caught up in the speculative mania endemic in antebellum America, even travelling to London in a hare-brained scheme to undercut British wool prices. Banks details all this, integrating the mundane with the apocalyptic, while sustaining the dramatic tension, as John Brown moves from conventional zealotry to an intensifying grandiosity.

Like the stereotype which hardens too fast and cracks, Brown broke the Yankee mould. He was too literal a reader of biblical vengeance to oppose slavery like a Garrison. The awestruck reactions of those who listened to his fervent denunciations of slavery played on his sense of his own destiny. Drawing his maturing children into his fantastic plans, Brown bided his time. When Kansas opened up, Brown and a number of his sons joined the band of migrating Northerners, many of them sent by the Massachusetts Emigration Society to swell the ranks of “free-soilers”. But the slow process of building up a democratic majority in Kansas tried Brown's patience. Enraged by the Missouri border ruffians who were harassing anti-slavery families, Brown went on the offensive with his own paramilitary force, conducting night raids of swift ferocity. Kansas became “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown of Osawatomie a national figure. Emboldened by these successes, Brown concocted a scheme to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. From that redoubt, he would arm the hordes of slaves whom he imagined running to his sanctuary of freedom. Thus would he destroy Southern slavery, a far brighter prize than merely adding another free state to the divided union.

Brown emerges from the pages of Cloudsplitter as refracted through the memory of his third son, Owen. In the novel, an elderly Owen decides to scotch the legends about the John Brown who lies “a-mould'ring in his grave”. With a diarist's recall of dates and a therapist's penchant for analysis, Banks's Owen recapitulates his father's anti-slavery crusade from the vantage-point of the family he commanded. Cast by Banks as an Isaac to his father's Abraham, Owen is also trying to make sense of how his own young life got implicated in his father's bizarre plan to organize a mass exodus of slaves from a South neither of them knew anything about. One of five survivors of the Harpers Ferry raid—John Brown was executed—Owen is depicted as feverishly debriefing himself a half-century later, using the emotional and physical distance of his hermit's cabin in California to find the method in the madness of the 1850s. The result is a historical account of John Brown and his times, laced with the tormented self-accusations of the fictionalized Owen.

The hostility that American whites have shown to American blacks over four centuries has forged the strongest kind of racial solidarity in the United States, that based on a profound sense of difference. Banks makes Owen Brown's consciousness of this difference a dramatic pivot for his storyteller who reproaches himself for his awkwardness with free blacks and self-liberating slaves, knowing that his father—unique among antebellum Americans—did not share his discomfort.

Banks has succeeded well as a historian, a social critic and an evoker of the frontier landscape through which the Brown family came and went. But like the Cloudsplitter, John Brown, Banks asks too much of Owen, expecting him to be at the same time a credible witness to the family's domestic negotiations and spiritual mobilization, a window on to his father's personality, and a prober into his own psychic wounds. Russell Banks's Owen is not up to the task, but, as a simple narrator, he does provide access to one of the most emblematic actors in American history. And he answers the lingering questions about Brown's fanaticism in a way that satisfies both the critical and the curious.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11197

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 scholarship to Colgate University, he dropped out in his first year with the intention of joining Fidel Castro's insurgent army in Cuba, but wound up working in a department store in Lakeland, Florida. He lived briefly in Boston, where he began to write short fiction and poetry, before returning to New Hampshire in 1964. Soon after, he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There he cofounded a small literary publishing house and magazine, Lillabulero.

Throughout the 1960s, Banks contributed short stories to a variety of literary magazines. He was graduated with honors from North Carolina in 1967 and returned to New Hampshire where he taught at Emerson College in Boston and the University of New Hampshire at Durham. The 1971 volume of The Best American Short Stories included fiction by Banks. In 1974 he published a volume of poetry, Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter. His first novel, Family Life, was not a critical success, but Banks's next volume, a collection of short stories, Searching for Survivors, won an O. Henry Award. A second collection of short stories, The New World (1978), received acclaim for its blending of historical and semi-autobiographical material.

The working-class New Englander and his struggle with violence became the focus of his next two novels Hamilton Stark (1978) and The Book of Jamaica (1980). Banks developed his narrative experiments with point of view as well as deepened his exploration of themes on the barriers of race and class. An interrelated collection of short stories, Trailerpark (1981), brought Banks widespread critical acclaim. Based on the religious and moral struggles of a seventeenth-century coffin builder, The Relation of My Imprisonment followed in 1984.

Banks ascended to the first rank of American novelists in 1985 with the publication of Continental Drift, a dual point of view work about an oil-burner repairman from New Hampshire and a Haitian refugee. The convergence of lives and experiences around violence and tragedy also informs his next novels, Affliction (1989) and The Sweet Hereafter (1991), both of which were recently made into motion pictures. Following Rule of the Bone (1995), Banks's most recent novel, Cloudsplitter (1997), transforms the themes of race and violence into an American epic centered on the story of John Brown.

Banks is married to the poet Chase Twitchell. It is his fourth marriage and he has four daughters from previous marriages. Banks spends most of the year at his home in the small town of Keene, New York. He recently retired from his position as the Howard G. B. Clark University Professor at Princeton University.

Most of this interview was conducted at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. A powerful, burly man with a closely trimmed beard and white hair, Banks sat comfortably in his study surrounded by books, his computer and a large collection of model and toy school buses.

[Faggen and Munger]: You began to write in the 1960s. How did that decade influence you? Did you meet any notable figures?

[Banks]: Yes, I met Kerouac. It must have been 1967, a year or two, at the most, before he died. I got a call from a pal in a bar in town, The Tempo Room, a local hangout: “Jack Kerouac is in town with a couple of other guys, and he wants to have a party.” I said, “Yeah, sure, right.” He said, “No, really.” I was the only guy in this crowd with a regular house. So Jack Kerouac showed up with a troupe of about forty people he had gathered as he went along, and three guys whom he insisted—and I think they indeed were—Micmac Indians from Quebec. Kerouac, like a lot of writers of the open road, didn't have a driver's license. He needed a Neal Cassady just to get around; this time he had these crazy Indians, who were driving him to Florida to be with his mother. They all ended up crashing for the weekend. He had just received his advance for what turned out to be his last book and was spending it like a sailor on leave. He brought with him a disruptiveness and wild disorder, and moments of brilliance, too. I could see how attractive he must have been when he was young, both physically and intellectually. He was an incredibly beautiful man, but at that age (he was about forty-five) the alcohol had wreaked such destruction that it left him beautiful only from the neck up. Also, you could see why they called him Memory Babe: he would switch into long, beautiful twenty-minute recitations of Blake or the Upanishads or Hoagy Carmichael song lyrics. Then he would phase out and turn into an anti-Semitic, angry, fucked-up, tormented old drunk—a real know-nothing. It was comical, but sad. There were a lot of arguments back and forth, then we would realize, No, he's just a sad, old drunk; I can't take this stuff seriously. Eventually he would realize it himself, and he would back off and turn himself into a senior literary figure and say, I can't take that stuff seriously either. Every time he came forward, he would switch personas, and you would go bouncing back off him. It was a very strange and strenuous weekend. And very moving. It was the first time I had seen one of my literary heroes seem fragile and vulnerable.

Was Kerouac an early inspiration?

Kerouac was very important to me for a lot of reasons, though not necessarily for the reasons that he was inspiring to other folks. But for a working-class New England kid who was, for the most part, an autodidact, reading Jack Kerouac, a writer of clear significance, was very liberating—liberating both in literary terms and in sexual terms, as well as in social behavior. He gave me another way to think and walk; validated my life so far and my hopes for that life. I never actually wanted to write like Kerouac; I never wanted to write about what he wrote, particularly. But there was a rough personalism and expansiveness in his work that had gone out of favor at the time. Kerouac reinvoked a Whitmanesque perspective and texture; he renewed the old barbaric yawp, which was very exciting and inspiring. To me, it was something new, although that rough personalism is, of course, a very strong, old current in American literature, with its headwaters in Whitman and Twain. In the twentieth century it got blocked by the power of the Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce models and the High Modernists' affection for formalism. But there was also Dreiser, Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. I think Kerouac reinvigorated that stream, opened it up again. I think that's what happens with a young writer: a single figure, who may not be major in any way, can help you rethink and re-view writers that otherwise you would have dismissed or feared.

Do you remember the first writer who really bowled you over?

Whitman. It was in my late teens, and I suddenly realized that was the kind of writer I wanted to be. Not the kind of writing I wanted to do, but the kind of writer I wanted to be: a man of the people, but at the same time writing high art. It was the first time I had the sense that you could be a writer and it would be a lofty, noble position, yet still connected to the reality around you. You didn't have to be Edgar Allan Poe, or Robert Lowell for that matter. Whitman was the first figure of that sort.

Do you make a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow literature?

The distinction between high and low culture depresses me, dividing all culture like Gaul into high, middle and low. It's a very comforting way to think about culture, so long as you think of yourself as highbrow. I think it speaks to, and speaks out of, anxiety about class, especially in the United States, as people from the lower classes begin to participate in the literary arts and intellectual life in an aggressive way. Then folks start claiming there is high, middle and low culture, so know your place, please, and stay there. I don't think it would have made much sense to Whitman. Some of the distinctions between high and low culture wouldn't make much sense to someone like John Brown of Harpers Ferry, for example, who thought that Milton and Jonathan Edwards were as available to him as penny broadsides.

Did you sense that anxiety when you started to write?

I sensed that the culture was run by people who went to Harvard, Princeton and Yale, that it was run by upper-class white men. I don't think I was wrong. Pick up an O. Henry Award anthology or any poetry anthology from that era—there may have been a few Jewish guys from Columbia—and that's it. But pick up an O. Henry anthology from 1996, the contributors come from everywhere—white men, women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans. But in the fifties there was no way you could think about culture as something that was not run, not the product of, and not consumed primarily by that small group of white male graduates of Ivy League colleges.

Given this, you were hardly encouraged to become an artist early on?

No. No push in that direction whatsoever.

Where did it come from?

I think it came in by the side door. When I was a kid, the first evidence of any special talent that I might have had was artistic. I had a good hand. I could draw and paint, and I loved to do it. It was physically satisfying, it provided escape and a kind of sexual pleasure. It got me attention, too—praise from teachers, strangers, from my family. “Isn't he amazing. Can he play the violin too?” That sort of thing. I was a kind of prodigious curiosity to people. As I got into my middle teens, I thought, That's what I want to be, an artist! I think that allowed me to separate myself from the conventional expectations for a bright kid from my class.

What were those expectations?

From others, probably to get a scholarship and go to college and become a lawyer or a doctor. The goal was to get into the middle class: make some money, marry a nice girl, buy a house and settle down. I already had started to imagine for myself a life that couldn't meet that set of expectations, which I think is why I left Colgate after eight weeks. Colgate was then a preppy, neo-Ivy school for upper-middle-class white boys, and I was sort of an early affirmative-action kid. It was a good program, a wonderful program for most. For me it wasn't. I was so out of it on the social surface and at the psychological depths that I felt I had no choice but to flee. I stole away in the night, literally. Hitchhiked my way out in a snowstorm with all my belongings in a backpack. I hitchhiked as far from that little network of expectations and pressure as I could get. I headed off to Florida to join Castro.

You wanted to join Castro's revolution?

Why not? He was a heroic figure. He was a Robin Hood figure for a lot of Americans at that time—you didn't have to be radical to imagine him that way. It was pretty easy to picture myself at his side. He was, in some ways, the good father. I only got as far as Miami. By that time Castro was marching into Havana and didn't need me anymore. Also, I realized I didn't know quite how to get from Key West to Cuba, and I couldn't speak Spanish.

You dedicated Affliction to your father. What was he like?

He was violent, and alcoholic. He abandoned the family when I was twelve.

Did you ever reconcile with him?

Yes, I did. In my late teens I sought him out and even lived with him in New Hampshire for a while and worked as a plumber alongside him until I was twenty-four. I remember a talk I had with him when I was trying to write at night—stories and a novel and so forth, trying to invent myself as a writer while being a plumber. I remember talking to him about it, at one point saying, “Jesus Christ, I don't want to do this, I hate plumbing.” He looked at me with puzzlement and said, “You think I like it?” I realized, My God, of course not. What was he then? Around my age now, and he had done this all his adult life. He was a very bright man, talented in many ways. But he grew up in the Depression and when he got out of high school at sixteen he went right to work to help support the family. No matter how bright he was, his life was shaped entirely by those forces. I'll never forget that moment.

But it was always a testy, anxiety-ridden relationship, on both sides. It wasn't until I was in my early thirties that I began to feel at ease with him. I vividly remember a perception that transformed my relationship to him. He had given me a Christmas present—a cord of firewood. Typically, it wasn't quite a gift. I had to go pick it up at his house. The wood was pretty much frozen solidly into the ground when I finally arranged to get over there. It was snowing, and I was out in the yard kicking the logs loose and tossing them into my truck. I was pissed off, goddamn it, he could have given me something smaller, or he didn't have to give me anything, instead of this damn wood! The old man was in the kitchen watching me. Finally, he put his coat on and came out and worked alongside me. I was working pretty furiously, ignoring him, but after a while I looked over at him and saw that it was very difficult for him. I suddenly saw him as an old man, and very fragile. We reversed our polarity at that moment.

What were you writing at the time?

I was working on Hamilton Stark then. I wonder if the book and that reversal of polarity are connected in some way, the power shift. Probably there is some real connection to it. There is a wonderful intelligence to the unconscious. It's always smarter than we are.

Your personal mythology looks like part of the American mythology—the young rebel setting out for the territory ahead.

What happens—at least this is what happened to me, and I suspect it has happened to a lot of writers—is that there comes a point when the work starts to shape your life. Early on, you intuit and start to create patterns of images and narrative forms that are bound to be central to American mythology. If you start to plug the imagery and sequences of your personal life into these patterns and forms, then they are going to feed the way you imagine your own life. Before long, writing will turn out, for the writer, to be a self-creative act. The narrative that early on attracted me was the run from civilization, in which a young fellow in tweeds at Colgate University lights out and becomes a Robin Hood figure in fatigues in the Caribbean jungle. That fantasy is a story for myself. It also happens to be a very basic American story, as well as a basic white-male fantasy. A wonderful reciprocity between literature and life evolves. It seems to be inescapable.

When did you notice the impact of the mythology of your writing on your life?

With The Book of Jamaica. That book leaves the protagonist at the end stunned into self-recognition by his confrontation with what people call the “radical other.” Having gone through the same experiences, literally and imaginatively, that the protagonist in The Book of Jamaica experiences, I began to live my life more consciously and aggressively in racial and class terms, laying the ground on which I stood a few years later when I wrote Continental Drift.

How did that play out?

After living in Jamaica and writing The Book of Jamaica, I accepted that I was obliged, for example, to have African-American friends. I was obliged to address, deliberately, the overlapping social and racial contexts of my life. I'm a white man in a white-dominated, racialized society, therefore, if I want to, I can live my whole life in a racial fantasy. Most white Americans do just that. Because we can. In a color-defined society we are invited to think that white is not a color. We are invited to fantasize, and we act accordingly.

Rule of the Bone invites comparisons to Huckleberry Finn. Certainly I-Man makes us think of Jim.

Well, Jim is not the only black man in white man's literature. Toni Morrison talks about that shadow in Playing in the Dark.

Do you think Morrison is right in seeing American writers as essentially parasitic of the African-American experience?

I didn't take it that way at all. I took it to be a description of an American literature that persists on unconsciously including the African-American presence while at the same time denying it a shaping role, and she argues that the denial of that presence proves, not the absence of the African-American, but his presence, a presence that makes itself known mainly through denial. I thought her attempt to assert that was in the end healing and inclusive. To write a novel that claims to be, or intends to be, about the American experience and yet does not consciously include the African-American presence in some way is to lapse into a kind of pathological denial.

What drew you to Jamaica?

Serendipity. I had a white Jamaican friend who directed me there and helped me rent a house, first for four weeks and then a year later for six weeks. Gradually my interest in the history of the region exfoliated, until I found almost all my intellectual interests being nurtured there; so when I got a Guggenheim in 1976 and had the opportunity to take off from teaching and travel and live someplace for a year and a half, instead of Italy or France I went to Jamaica.

Continental Drift reveals a wealth of knowledge about Caribbean language, history, religion. Did the research begin then?

Yes, but I wasn't planning a book at the time. I was just following my nose, and what began as a curiosity became a continuing interest and then turned into an obsession. The more information I got, the more I wanted—my obsession extended out into the entire Caribbean, including Haitian religion, history and culture generally. I found myself living for long periods out in the bush in Accompong, reading and working on my own in isolation. It was a deliberate withdrawal into another world. I accumulated most of the material that later became The Book of Jamaica. I wrote lots of stories too, most of The New World.

How do you make the decision to work in the form of short story as opposed to the novel. Are they continuous forms?

No, they're very discontinuous. For me, they each bear greatly different relations to time. The novel, I think, has a mimetic relation to time. The novel simulates the flow of time, so once you get very far into a novel, you forget where you began—just as you do in real time. Whereas with a short story the point is not to forget the beginning. The ending only makes sense if you can remember the beginning. I think the proper length for a short story is to go as far as you can without going so far that you have forgotten the beginning.

Do you outline or make sketches of novels?

With novels, yes. Not with short stories. Usually, with a novel, I have a pretty good idea of the arc of the narrative and its breaking points. I know if it's going to be a five-act or a three-act novel, or to drive right through to one place or require a reversal, come this way for a while, then reverse and go that way. I do work that out. I also have a short-term outline that covers the next fifty or sixty pages, which I keep rewriting as I work. Of course, it's all tentative; I can change it at will as new ideas, plot turns, characters appear and develop. The trick, I suppose, is to find the point between control and freedom that allows you to do your work.

Do you find when you are writing short stories you must have that keynote?

With a short story, I never know where I'm going until I get there. I just know where I entered. That is what comes to me: the opening, a sentence or phrase, even. But with a novel, it's like entering a huge mansion: it doesn't matter where you come in, as long as you get in. I usually imagine the ending, not literally and not in detail, but I do have a clear idea whether it's going to end with a funeral or wedding. Or if I am going to burn the mansion down or throw a dinner party at the end. The important question—the reason you write the novel—is to discover how you get from here to there.

When you started writing Continental Drift, you saw Bob Dubois's demise?

I saw the boat, the collision of two worlds and the people drowning. In both cases, Bob's and Vanise's, I began with a dark and stormy night in Haiti and a dark and stormy night in New Hampshire. I did know that they were going to end up together at sea in a boat, that the Haitians were going to drown and Bob was going to have to deal with that. I didn't know the meaning of it, but I trusted that the meaning would be acquired through getting there. The journey itself would be the truth and meaning of the ending. As in life.

Suffering and blame are important themes in your work. How did the title Affliction come to you?

It came from Simone Weil. I felt that every other name for it, like domestic violence, or male violence, if you want, or child abuse—those terms were too reductive and simplistic and weren't descriptive, finally. They didn't describe the condition the way the word affliction did, which implies something greater than a disease, but still a disease. It has a moral dimension, too. An affliction is a blood curse, in a way, a blood disease. I wanted all of those associations. I couldn't get at the condition without a metaphor that was large enough and suggestive enough to handle it. I needed a religious term, almost.

What kind of religious upbringing did you have?

New England Presbyterian. But more the culture than the actual religion. My family was not deeply religious, but we did go to church regularly and Sunday school and so forth, up until I was about fourteen. I think a sensitive kid doesn't need to be heavily indoctrinated in order to have a very elaborate, lasting and powerful set of responses to stimuli like that.

You associate Protestantism with capitalism.

Who doesn't? It's a great explanation for greed—the devil made me do it! And success—the Lord blessed me with it! As well as failure, or poverty. The whole idea of the free-market system having some kind of great, Darwinian logic to it is wonderfully Protestant. You are either touched by grace or you're not—if you're not, there is nothing you can do about it, and nobody is to blame or obliged to help. Except God or Satan.

There is a great scene in Rule of the Bone where Bone burns the spider. I thought of Jonathan Edwards's sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

It comes out of Edwards, pointedly. It's a vivid image for me. But it also comes out of Huckleberry Finn—a scene where Huck burns a spider in a candle flame, very early, at his father's cabin, I think. When you are writing fiction, you try to write it as deeply as you can, so you have to go to the images that have power for you personally.

The school bus is a powerful symbol for you.

The school bus is a very powerful image to me. I'm not sure why. I'll probably keep on recycling it until it no longer has resonance for me. I think that is what poets do. Perhaps less overtly, novelists keep going back to images that retain power for them and recycling them, reusing them in another context, coming at them from another angle to see what they suggest from there. In that sense, I was trying to take what had been a vehicle for death in The Sweet Hereafter and see if it could possibly be a source of life for Bone. It took doing. But as you can see from my collection of toy school buses, it's still an obsession with me.

Absolutely!

Some are antiques, and from all over the world. The school bus is a layered, multifaceted image. It is instantly recognizable to every American. It is associated, at least for me, with the first time you give your children over to the state. From the child's point of view, it is the first time he leaves home and goes out into the larger world. It is the connecting cord between the family and the outside world, and has both positive and negative implications.

There is obviously a difference between your sense of childhood and J. D. Salinger's.

Salinger believes in innocence, and I don't think I do. He wrote obsessively about the fall from innocence, or the threat of it. I have a hard time imagining such a thing, mainly because I don't think that I believe in innocence. Salinger thinks of childhood differently than I do, as if the main threat to childhood is knowledge of adult life. Whereas I think that the main threat to children has more to do with power, adult power and the misuse and abuse of it.

Because childhood isn't innocent?

Right. Even Froggy in Rule of the Bone isn't innocent.

And the girl in The Sweet Hereafter who survived the bus crash, Nichole, she isn't innocent?

She's enraged, far from innocent.

Getting even is all right?

It can be liberating, and empowering, as it is to Nichole. For Bone, I think the point of his anger is simply in taking power back from his stepfather.

That happens in Affliction, too.

That is the pathological extreme—the abuse is so pervasive and long-lived that it has been transferred from the abuser to the abused. The victim's great conflict is how to avoid becoming an abuser himself.

How do you avoid it?

Well, the book isn't a handbook, it's a novel. But the two brothers, Wade and Rolfe, can be seen as equal and opposite reactions to the same conditions. Rolfe manages not to inflict on others the same violence that was inflicted on him—but he does it by withdrawal and an absence of connection. Whereas Wade doesn't keep other people safe from him; he has relationships, an ex-wife, a lover, a child—he puts himself into the fray of life. But the story isn't meant to be a twelve-chapter recovery manual. It just allows you to imagine your life differently than you might have otherwise. There is a kind of obsessive return in some of my work, as in Hamilton Stark, Affliction and Rule of the Bone, to an abusive, patriarchal figure. Certain stories, too, return to it. Put simply, because I was able to write these novels and stories, I think I have managed to live a different story than the one I was given by my childhood.

What do you think are the dangers of associating writing with therapy?

Bad writing is the basic danger. It's also a lousy way to get therapy. But if you submit the material of your life—all the materials, not just the conscious materials, but all your obsessions and dreams and your dimly apprehended intuitions of the world—if you submit those materials to the rigorous disciplines of art, then you are going to end up with a clearer story about someone other than you than the one that is about you. You can use your own books in the same way you use anybody's books … to inform your life about the person who inhabits it. I think the reason you write, after all, is to inform your own life with a book that is made out of the subconscious materials of that life.

There is something else that comes up again and again—somebody who is trying to figure out a conspiracy or a crime. Certainly in The Book of Jamaica, certainly in The Sweet Hereafter. Is there a tension for you between having a solvable mystery and a sense that things just happen?

There is a mystery at the center of all the books … for many reasons. One is simply that it provides the engine that drives the book—it provides a quest, the quest for knowledge, in most cases, for information. I suppose, too, at bottom I must believe that the oldest question, What is the secret of the universe? is still worth asking. And I must believe that there is, not just a question, but also an answer. So the books are an attempt, each time, to find the answer. The mystery in the book, the literal mystery that might exist in the plot of the book, is really a metaphor for the other, deeper quest that the author is engaged in. Remember that great Borges story “The Aleph”? Each time you sit down to write, you hope that this will turn out to be your aleph. This will be the story that decodes the universe for you. So you will never have to write again.

Do you often long for that?

With every novel or story.

If you wrote that book, would you be content to stop and not respond to the pressures of having to go out and fight the bear to prove that you are the great hunter?

I like to think so. Essentially, you're asking me if I no longer had to write, for whatever reason, would I then feel obliged to continue to write fiction in order to sustain the career? I don't think it would happen. One thing I have complete control over—my writing; the other thing I have no control over—my career. Writers often get confused about the two and tend to treat the one as if it were the other. They think they can control their careers and can't control their work.

How did your career, as opposed to your writing, begin?

I was slow to find a publishing home. I had written a first novel at twenty-one, twenty-two, and then wrote another at twenty-four, twenty-five. For the second first novel, I had an agent, and she sent it to Random House, and they bought it. I was amazed. But just as the manuscript was about to be set in type, my editor, Steven M. L. Aronson, left Random House to work for Playboy, leaving my book in the lap of some poor, overworked junior editor, who probably didn't like the book anyhow. I asked a couple of writer friends, older and more experienced in these matters, what I should do. They said, “Well, your editor is gone and nobody has picked up his support for you. If you force them to publish it, they will, but without an editor to champion it, the book will die. Withdraw the book and sell it somewhere else.” Which I did. Of course, then I couldn't sell it. I bet fifteen publishers turned it down. Maybe, I thought, I should take another look at this book. I reread it. It turned out to be quite a terrible novel. So I called my agent and said, “Let's just park this one and I'll start my public writing life over again.” She said fine—this lovely, understanding woman, Ellen Levine, the only agent I have ever had. She was just starting out then, too. We have more or less grown up together.

You are prolific.

Depends on whom you're comparing me to. I have been able to work fairly steadily over the years. Every eighteen months to two years I can have a book finished, usually. It hasn't been troublesome for me, but I want to say I know it is the exception and not the rule for writers. Also, I have been blessed with loyalty from my publishers when my audience was very small, so I could keep on keeping on in my own way, without feeling as though if I didn't write a book that got on the best-seller list, I would lose my publisher. I was allowed to mature as a writer in solitude and anonymity.

How did you afford to do that?

Well, a combination. My ex-wife's family had money and they paid for my college years in Chapel Hill. And I worked as a teacher from 1968 on, starting at the University of New Hampshire. The other day at Princeton, some of us were talking about our writing students, and Toni Morrison said the first job of a writer is to get a job. Absolutely right. I had jobs as a plumber, a department-store window decorator, a shoe salesman and, after college, a teacher. Teaching turned out to be the best way for me to make a living while I wrote books that didn't sell. It was better than any other kind of work I had done because I could organize and control my time better. And no heavy lifting. You can save your best energies for your writing. After about ten years, I reached a point where I could live off my writing and didn't need to teach. But I saw then that, actually, I like teaching and am pretty good at it. It situates me in a community that is serious about ideas and engages me in an interesting and continually changing way with young people. So why not continue doing it? Princeton has been willing to accommodate my needs well enough, so that now I teach only the spring term and pull away for eight months and hide out at my place in upstate New York. I have always led a bipolar life. Maybe it's a way to externalize interior conflicts that I grew up with and continue to be controlled by. My life these days is split between the very privileged, genteel world of Princeton, New Jersey, and a small Adirondack village in upstate New York where unemployment is about twenty percent in the wintertime. But I'm comfortable with that back and forth. I don't think I could do just one or the other and feel comfortable emotionally. I feel stabilized by being able to do both. I think you end up identifying with any community that you live in continuously, whether a monastery or a company town or a university or a corporation, and in some way I've managed to avoid ever living in one place long enough to identify with that place or the institution that shapes it. Both in the university and up north, I feel that I am, if not a saboteur, certainly a mole, a spy. Which is a healthy way for a writer to view himself, I think.

As in the end of Continental Drift, to help destroy the world as it is?

Not very subtle of me, was it? Well, it is a tradition, after all, ending with an envoi to send your book out in the world to give it an explicit, literal task. But, yes, I have felt like an outlaw when in a university context. But I also know very well that, like most writers who teach, I am essentially parasitic there. As soon as the university's economic interests and mine don't coincide, they can rub me off on the nearest rock without any trouble. But for now, an institution can make good economic and pedagogical use of the fact that Joyce Carol Oates is here, Toni Morrison is here, I am here.

That's quite a cluster.

A cluster bomb.

Do you have a lot of interaction with the others?

Joyce and I are very close friends, and Toni and I are good friends—I won't say that we are close friends, because I don't see her as much since she lives mostly in New York, but we work closely here in the creative-writing program and African-American studies and we do see each other socially quite a lot.

Do you ever share work with them when it is in progress?

No, but we do try out notions and ideas on each other—ideas and notions concerning writing, other writers, other books, about the bodies politic, about the world that surrounds us. They are people whose ideas and opinions I value highly, so that is an enlivening and enriching part of being there. The personal relationships, as well, are valuable to me, because it is not a competitive scene. I don't think any of us feels particularly competitive with one another.

E. L. Doctorow also taught at Princeton. Did you know him at all when he was there?

I came to Princeton after he left. Ed Doctorow is one of those writers I most look up to. Of that generation, he and Grace Paley are the two who stand out for me as models. They are exemplary figures, really, both in their lives and in their work.

Several of your books have been made into films.

I've written a script for Continental Drift. Two other books are also in development, as they say—Rule of the Bone and The Book of Jamaica. And The Sweet Hereafter came out in 1997 and Affliction will be out later this year. In those cases, I signed off on them and let others do it. For a fiction writer, writing screenplays can create certain occupational hazards.

Such as?

Well, cocaine for one! No, getting big money in short bursts for little labor can hurt you. And working closely with people who see the world in terms of the movie industry can affect you in a negative way. You can't identify with any institution.

When you are getting into a voice, whether it be the narrators of The Sweet Hereafter, or Rolfe in Affliction or Bone, what decisions do you make about tone? How do you sustain it? Is there a sense in which that person is still an emanation of yourself?

When it has worked—and I can't ever be sure when it has and when it hasn't—but when it's felt like it was working, which is pretty much the case throughout Rule of the Bone and also, oddly enough, with the female narrators in The Sweet Hereafter, Dolores and Nichole, it felt not as though I was speaking through them, like a ventriloquist, but rather was listening to them and transcribing what I was hearing. I was listening to a voice; occasionally, the signal would get weak, and I could, as it were, adjust the tuner and bring in the signal again and begin to transcribe again. Obviously this is a complicated process. It's not simply opening your ears up, because you are simultaneously broadcasting and receiving. But while you are engaged in the process, your attention is fixed on the listening part and not the broadcasting part. When it doesn't work is when my attention has shifted to the broadcasting part. I know I am speaking figuratively, but that's how it feels. In the case of the male narrators in The Sweet Hereafter, I felt that I was more focused on broadcasting and speaking through those characters than listening to them—and their voices don't seem as authentic to me. Maybe the less a character is like me—female characters, a teenage boy and so on—the easier it is for me to write as a listener and not a speaker.

At the risk of seeming too mysterious, where do the voices come from?

It is sort of mysterious. But I think we all at times have buzzing in our heads a whole range of voices, some of them heard early on and retained, some of them taken from the ether, the broadcast ether. I mean it literally. I can hear John F. Kennedy's voice in a second. I can hear my father's voice; I can hear the voices of people I have met only once on the street. So I think the voices are buzzing around in an aural memory bank, and you can tap into them the way you can tap into forgotten visual memories. It's analogous to the way in a dream someone who is long dead or from way back in your childhood, someone whose face and voice you can't really call up, suddenly comes back with great clarity and vividness, as if the dreaming self has a more powerful memory than the conscious self. I think writers, to a greater or lesser degree, have the ability to tap into their aural memories more effectively, more directly than the average citizen. I probably overheard the voice of a kid like Bone somewhere along the line and, in a sense, recorded it. Maybe it's a mix of several tracks. I don't know.

When you were writing Rule of the Bone, did you feel that there was a dangerous line between listening and broadcasting, or that Bone would seem too intelligent for someone his age?

It didn't worry me particularly. Kids are much smarter than most adults give them credit for being. I don't think there is as sharp a difference between children and adults as, again, Salinger believes—except in terms of power. Who is to say that the inner life of a child is less complex or intelligent than the inner life of an adult? You can remember yourself at fourteen: you were able to say incredibly complicated, subtle things when you spoke to a trusted friend; you could move deep centers of meaning straight into speech and could communicate those meanings with ease and precision. But you couldn't do it very well when you had to speak to someone who was threatening to you, like an adult. The tricky part in that book, for me, was to imagine myself as the trusted friend and listener, so that Bone could become articulate.

Many of my characters are drawn from people who—to the world at the large, the reading public let's say—are perceived as inarticulate or mute altogether; but who, given the chance to speak, turn out to be quite able to address and describe their lives with clarity and intelligence. At bottom, I really believe that people are not more or less inarticulate by virtue of their age or education or class: what makes you inarticulate is a feeling of threat. And it is generally true that poor people and children feel more threatened than rich adults and, surprise, the people who feel least threatened turn out to be the people we think of as the most articulate—rich, white men.

Do characters tend to come first when you are planning a novel?

It's very difficult to generalize. If you had asked me that question in my thirties, I'd have said that the narrative form comes to me before anything else. Later on, in my forties, I would have said character, definitely characters first. A few years later, I'd have said no, actually voice—narrative voice, language—comes to me first. It has varied over the years. I don't think it has evolved, just changed. I tended to grasp at form more immediately in the beginning, when I was still learning my craft and consequently was more conscious of, and anxious about it. Then in the middle years, I was coming to important understandings of basic relationships—my parents, my wife, my children, my friends. Now I think I'm much more interested in listening and language. Not abstractly so, but humanly so. I'm more interested in the act of witnessing, more engaged by it—a result, perhaps, of being more confident in my ability to organize and control and develop a formal apparatus that will carry the story sufficiently and efficiently, more confident and secure in my ability to maintain loving, gentle, continuing relations with other people. I feel free to turn my attention to other things, and what I have been most anxious about in these recent years is my ability to listen to and understand the lives of people who are different from me—people who don't live the way I live and don't have my privileges.

Would you agree with the critic who said of you: “Banks began his career divided between a common life subject matter and an experimental style. Subject has obviously won out; and Banks's liberated energies have gone into the forging of a straight-on technique.”

It's essentially true. It's descriptive, but not very analytical. What has occurred is that the formal aspects are less apparent than they were—I didn't know how to make them less apparent when I was younger. I don't think the work itself is less formal.

Another thing vis-à-vis that perceived shift is that I became a writer without having a clear sense of entitlement. I didn't know any writers. It wasn't a trade I could imagine myself into very easily. So in order to do it, I felt I had to reject a lot of my background and the circumstances of my youth, and willfully learn the techniques of fiction. In my early years as a writer, I was a lot more self-conscious and deliberate in my attempts to acquire craft and at the same time somewhat apologetic about what I knew about the material. Over the years that aggressive approach to craft diminished at the same time as my defensive relation to the content. As that occurred, the work began to appear more assertive in terms of content, and more self-confident.

In your novel about John Brown were you interested in creating a hero?

I am interested in the whole question of the possibility of heroism, especially in a secular age and especially in a democratic society. There are two things that are ongoing perplexities for me: First, Is there such a thing as wisdom? And second, Is there such a thing as heroism? I want there to be both, but I am not sure that I believe they exist as human potential anymore. At least, I am not sure in what terms they are available. Those are the truths I am trying to find out: the truth about wisdom and the truth about heroism. That quest takes different forms. For example, in The Sweet Hereafter, I was interested in whether you could locate heroism in a community rather than in a single individual—whether some of the conventional notions about the characteristics of heroism could be distributed across a broader spectrum. The four main individuals in the story are unable to resolve the contradictions of their experience—the contradictions inherent in loving somebody and knowing that we all die soon and there is no afterlife—and they do not behave heroically as individuals. But as a community they are able to resolve those contradictions; they do it by means of public ritual, in which they simultaneously appoint Dolores, the school-bus driver, as the scapegoat and forgive her for the school-bus accident that killed their children, which their ragtag American religions and their legal systems couldn't do for them. That is what I was working towards: trying to create a consciousness large enough to absorb the human contradictions of the situation.

How did you get interested in John Brown?

A short ways down the road from my home in upstate New York is the home he lived in and maintained for the longest period of his life. His body lies moldering there today. But I first got interested in John Brown in the 1960s in Chapel Hill, when I was reading and taking very seriously the literature of the New England Renaissance. His name repeatedly appeared in association with them—the transcendentalists' Che Guevara, a romantic but violent figure who, in a sense, acted out their deepest political fantasies. Certainly he was a romantic figure for me as well—he had acted out some of my own neo-abolitionist fantasies of the sixties. Then he faded from my consciousness for a long period, until I settled in upstate New York and learned that his house and grave were down the road. The ghost of John Brown returned to haunt me. About the same time, events like Waco, Ruby Ridge, the militia movement, the radical anti-abortionists started making headlines—all of them invoking his name to justify violence. Certain parallels became pretty obvious to me, and I realized how significantly he figures in the old American weave of violence, politics, religion, race. All those strands cross him, yet the nearest John Brown Boulevard is in Port au Prince, Haiti, and there are no schools named after him, no stamp honoring him—even though he is regarded, certainly by African-Americans, as a hero of the first order. James Baldwin and Malcolm X placed him even higher than Abraham Lincoln. But white Americans generally regard him as mad, at best, and criminal.

That split is revealing about America, isn't it?

The irony is that it is Brown's own race that regards him as a criminal. Anyhow, all of these forces converged to draw me into his orbit. He is an ambiguous figure, morally ambiguous. He had a ferocious, charismatic presence and from early in his life he deeply impressed people not easily impressed—Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, people normally very skeptical, especially of an energetic white man. The defining actions in his life, however, are in some ways inexplicable. He didn't just sacrifice himself, remember, he sacrificed his sons as well—he took two sons to certain death and would have taken a third, who escaped, and two sons-in-law, and all those other young, idealistic men who died at Harpers Ferry. He knew they were going to die there. The book is an attempt to deal with that mystery. And with another mystery: Nat Turner might be the first true terrorist in American history, but John Brown became the first deliberate white terrorist in American history when he calmly executed five pro-slavery civilians in order to “spread terror.” For no other reason. They were selected at random. There is not much difference between him and an IRA bomber. I wanted to understand that—the mystery of terrorism.

Did you find yourself wanting or able to justify Brown's violence?

Neither. I'm his creator, not his defense attorney. It's a novel, not a trial transcript; and Brown is a fictional character in the novel, not a real person. I wasn't trying to write his biography.

How did you arrive at the title Cloudsplitter?

It's the translation of Tahawus, the Algonquin name of the Adirondack mountain we call Marcy today, which is in full view from John Brown's farm and burial place in North Elba. Besides having been old Brown's favorite sight, or site, it seemed a useful metaphor, both for Brown's career and for his son Owen's task-in-hand, which is to clear away, or split, the clouds that surround his father's actions and character.

How did you decide to make John Brown's son Owen the narrator?

You can't stand too near the heat of a character like John Brown. It scalds you. To see him as other than an icon, you need the distancing that a weaker character provides.

When I was still researching the novel and hadn't worked out a way to tell the story yet, I came across an endnote in a 1972 biography of Brown by Richard O. Boyer that referred to the research materials of a previous biographer, Oswald Garrison Villard, which had been gathered early in the century when several of Brown's children were still living. So I went up to Columbia and pulled this material from the rare books room—seven dusty boxes of material—and found interviews made by Villard's assistant, a Miss Catherine Mayo, with three surviving children. Reading the interviews, I started hearing the voice I wanted for my narrator—the writing voice, not the speaking voice, of an old man born probably in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, looking back half a century to the events that defined his life. It was one of those moments when you know you've got something very basic very right, a moment that stops the whirl in your head and lets you plunge into the writing. Owen had been with Brown at Harpers Ferry and had escaped and lived to tell about it, except that he never did tell about it. He escaped through the abolitionist underground and surfaced after the war as a shepherd on a mountaintop in Altadena, California, where he died in 1889. The perfect narrator. For the purposes of storytelling, I let him live on till 1902, long enough to be interviewed by Miss Catherine Mayo and then to write the letters that make the novel.

Did you have models of the epistolary novel in mind?

Not specifically. We've inherited the biblical epistles, of course, and the great eighteenth-century English epistolary novels, which are based—even if satirically—on the classical writers' use of it. Then they get based on each other, so that by our time it has become more than a literary form—it's practically a genre. You almost don't need models. You need a structure—my narrator, his psychology and the occasion of his telling, gave me that structure, but the form drops whole from the genre, the tradition of the epistolary novel.

Why does Owen not mail the letters?

He intends to, at least at first. But before long he realizes that it's the writing itself that is important to him and that he is not so much interested in setting the public record straight as he is in telling, and in that way learning, the truth—the personal, private truth of who and what his father was and who, in turn, he is himself.

Does your approach to John Brown differ from other major versions in American literature?

Do you mean those by Stephen Vincent Benét, Thoreau, Melville, Hayden and so on? To them, I think, he is an icon, larger than life—a bearded, emblematic figure used mainly to express the authors' passionate feelings about race, slavery, injustice, religion and martyrdom. To me, he is just an ordinary American workingman of the mid-nineteenth century, radicalized by the inherent conflict between his conscience and his historical circumstances. He is the last Puritan and the first modern terrorist—it's the terrible logic of that transition that fascinates me.

Are you concerned with the ethical impact of your characters? Do you worry that a young person reading Rule of the Bone would be inclined to follow Bone—chuck it all for reefer and split for Jamaica?

Wouldn't be the worst thing he could do. But the book really isn't about kids, it's about adults. Just as Huckleberry Finn isn't about kids. What I think upsets adults when they read Huckleberry Finn is Huck's portrait of adults—their chicanery, hypocrisy, cruelty, violence, racism. That was instructive to me in thinking about Bone. What I hoped was that when kids read Rule of the Bone, they would see themselves and the book would confirm and validate their view of adults. Just as when you read Huckleberry Finn for the first time at fourteen or fifteen, you say, Yeah, man, adults suck. And because it's told in such a smart and funny way, for the first time you don't feel guilty or fearful for holding that view.

I read somewhere that the Ridgeways were portraits of you and your wife.

No. The Ridgeways themselves certainly are not based on me and my wife. You sometimes introduce aspects of yourself, consciously and unconsciously, into a book. It's inescapable. There are a couple of places where, in a minor way, I inserted aspects of myself and my wife. It's a way, I think, of depriving us of major roles. Bone's best friend is named Russ, a garrulous, wise-cracking, bullshitting schemer; I know there are times, certainly when I was a kid, when I have been just that—a garrulous, wise-cracking, bullshitting schemer. If I could put myself over there in that corner of the book, then it was less likely that I would inadvertently let myself slide into Bone, or some other important part of the book. Same with the Ridgeways. In that case, I slipped in the bourgeois snob aspect, another unlovely side of myself. It wasn't just being coy or seeding the book with obscure references; but I think it served a useful purpose by giving a minor character my own name and giving myself a cameo, as it were, I was able to keep my head clear about who Bone really was—it helped me know that he was not me and his story was not mine. Paradoxically, it helped me stay invisible.

The question of invisibility comes up over and over again in that book and, of course, in American literature.

I think the question you are raising here is more about authorial invisibility than, say, Ralph Ellison's use of the term. It is something I strive for, mainly because I have treasured it in other writers. Its absence in Hemingway makes me uncomfortable in ways that reading Faulkner, to keep to the same generation, does not. But authorial invisibility is extremely difficult to achieve, because to give the work any real heat and power you have to go straight toward what matters to you personally. You have to deal with what really is a life-or-death issue for you. Because of that you are inadvertently, almost inescapably, going to end up becoming visible in the book. So you have to discover and impose on the text a means of keeping yourself out—you have to keep catching yourself in the glare of your own light and then getting the hell out of there.

How do you manage the day-to-day stuff of writing?

It has changed over the years, much as my life's circumstances have changed. When I was younger and had young kids, I wrote from ten at night till two in the morning and then got up in the morning and got the kids ready for school and went off to my teaching job. Now that I am in my middle fifties, happily I have a lot more time but, unfortunately, I have a lot less energy. In the mornings, I go down the hill to my cabin—an old, renovated sugarhouse that I've used as a studio for the last eight years—and crank it up and work until I start to get stupid, or at least start to feel stupid. Actually, I feel stupid rather quickly, but usually it's perfectly obvious that I am stupid after about four to five hours.

Four or five hours is quite a bit of writing.

But when you are working well, it goes by so fast. You look up and, My God, it's one o'clock and I'm hungry.

Do you try to keep on a regular schedule?

I try. I am able, most of the time, to work seven days a week, although now and then I take a day or two off for a short holiday or to come into the city on business. But generally I work every day and then hold the afternoons free for everything from hiking in the mountains, to doing laundry, to answering letters, to editing, to paying bills.

Do you get a lot of letters from readers?

Seems to me a lot. Enough time goes by and enough books end up in print—people will pick one up and read it and have that old impulse, and I think it's such a wonderful impulse, to write back to the author. I do like that, and I try to answer eventually. It's only polite if someone has taken the time to write you a letter. Also, a lot of times it's somebody in prison or a kid or someone who's had a really fucked-up life and says, Thanks a lot, your books sound just like my life. You have to answer those, no?

Do you write on a word processor?

I love the word processor. I grew up with wet clay and a stylus. Consequently, I don't think the computer has had quite the same impact on me as the sense of rhythm and pacing and language basically formed in the stone age of writing technology. Also, from the beginning I've found that I have to sneak past that internal censor who basically wants me to shut up and be silent, and the best way for me to get something said has been to move real fast. The faster I can write, the more likely I'll get something worth saving down on paper. From the very beginning, I've grabbed onto any technology that would allow me to write faster: a soft pencil instead of a hard pencil, ballpoint instead of a fountain pen, electric typewriter instead of manual and now, working with light on a screen rather than marks on a page, I find that I can noodle and doodle and be much more spontaneous. It doesn't mean that I don't go back and rework and rework and rework.

You do a lot of revising?

Oh, I do! Much more revising than I used to do. Because it's much easier with a computer.

What about reviewers?

I have gotten irritated here and there, especially when the reviewer seems not to have read the book I wrote and complains because it's not some other book—sometimes an earlier book of my own, as if I were supposed to be cloning my books instead of writing them. But only mildly irritated. I tend to avoid the negative reviews anyhow. Positive reviews help to sell the book, of course, and they feel good—they're better than a stick in the eye—but I've learned over the years that any book, when it is first published, is forced to fit into the gestalt of the moment. Whatever the popular perception of the moment, whether in literary terms or social terms, the book is forced into the gestalt and media vocabulary of that moment. So it takes about five years, at least—if the book can stay in print that long and get circulated and read—for it to be seen in its own terms. When Rule of the Bone was published, there was a flurry of literary interest in Huck Finn and a flurry of media interest in child abuse and homeless kids; consequently Rule of the Bone was read mostly in those contexts. But years from now, if the book should be so lucky as to stay in print, it will be seen and read on its own terms. It will be easier then to know what the book is about. That is when I'll care what people think of it. Just as I care now what people think of Affliction or Continental Drift or any of the earlier books.

It's a broad question, but has the determination to keep writing had an effect on your home life?

Oh, definitely. My married life would have been worse if I hadn't been a writer. I don't think my being a writer has ever had the slightest negative effect on my domestic life. In fact, I think writing has channeled my self-absorption and selfishness into socially and domestically constructive forms of behavior.

Who is the funniest writer you've ever met?

A lot of writers are unintentionally funny. But intentionally? Joyce Carol Oates. You might not think so from her work, but she is incredibly, slyly funny, a brilliant tease who pretends not to be funny at all. We recently had dinner and she kept me laughing all evening—little things, sly little darts in and out. She especially likes to tease men, I think, and does it very effectively. By the end of the evening, your shirt is covered with blood and you don't remember being wounded once. Actually, she plays a role in my life that nobody else ever has played—the older, scolding sister. I get to play the bad, younger brother. It's comforting in some ways for both of us, and enjoyable. You recreate those basic roles over again with your friends—sibling and parental relations and so on—and carry them on into the rest of your life.

Have you ever had a knock-down drag-out fight with another writer?

I've had some serious disagreements with other writers over the years, but they never reached the point of verbal or any other kind of violence. Not that I know of, anyhow. I take great pleasure in the gift of friendship, when it's given; I value it very highly and try to live up to its responsibilities. I have managed over the years to have many friendships with writers that really nurtured and sustained me. With Joyce, of course, and Paul Auster, Michael Ondaatje and a half-dozen other novelists; the poets Charles Simic, Bill Matthews, C. K. Williams and Dan Halpern; and another poet, in Boston, Bill Corbett. He's a great man and he has been a dear friend for more than thirty years. When you reach a certain age, the friends who have carried you through thirty years of work and the accompanying insecurities and fears—people you have relied upon to reality-check everything from marriage to money to your basic political and religious beliefs—those people are irreplaceable and absolutely invaluable. I've been very lucky to have had a dozen or so such friendships.

Then you are not working in total isolation?

No, not at all. Not at all in isolation.

Millicent Bell (review date fall 1998)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2027

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 occurred as they did and somehow makes them visible inside our heads. History is never more “virtual” than when it resembles a novel. At the same time, the novel incorporates literal history. Laying aside its pretense of invention and resorting directly to truth-telling, the novel even sometimes lets in among its imagined persons some who once strode about among living men and women—like J. Edgar Hoover in DeLillo's Underworld, which I reviewed in this Chronicle recently. Fiction often backgrounds its made-up stuff with historical events and scenes. The novel never entirely escapes making some reference to actualities. At the maximum of such reference is the so-called historical novel, which undertakes to rewrite formal history, and places historical persons at its very center. It may make a real person known to history the protagonist of a fiction that is different from a sober historical biography only because of more frankly fabricated details and incidents unknown to record.

An example of this kind is Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter. Fiction it is, but one is bound to read it as though it were another biography among the many that have failed to agree about John Brown (1800-1859), who died on the gallows for leading an assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, an event often held to be the opening battle of the Civil War (the commander of the U.S. Cavalry force that overcame the raiders was a brevet colonel named Robert E. Lee). Three years earlier Brown had led a small band of his own sons and some others in the murder of five proslavery men in the Kansas Territory. Brown's deliberate brutalism—the murdered were savagely butchered with broadswords in their homes—was an act of terrorism for principle of a kind we recognize all too readily today. It achieved, as terrorism often does, an intensified popular awareness of the irreconcilability of a conflict that had seemed merely ideological to many. The Pottawatamie Massacre—though it was itself a reprisal for violence by slavery men—escalated a struggle that could no longer be a matter of land claims and disputed elections. It made the perpetrator at once a figure of contrary meaning to a rapidly dividing nation. Were it not for these two occasions, Brown would have remained a minor figure in the history of abolitionism, though the organizer of a black league of “Gileadites” in Springfield, Massachusetts and the captain of an outpost of the Underground Railroad at North Elba, New York, where he lived for a few years with his numerous family. A major portion of Banks' leisurely narrative describes the Browns' skirmishes with slave-catchers and the struggles with the harsh natural conditions of their Adirondack farm. But, in 1855, John Brown left for Kansas.

Brown would be reviled by the slavery faction as a religious maniac and at the same time a con-man and adventurer, but, to abolitionists, he became a sacred figure. As he stood trial for Harpers Ferry, the gentle Emerson notoriously said he would make “the gallows glorious like the cross” by his martyrdom. His earliest biography, published immediately after his execution, was written by a correspondent for the New York Tribune, James Redpath, who had attached himself to Brown after Pottawatamie and declared that he had perceived in 1856 that Brown was “the predestined leader of the second and holier American Revolution.” There were soon other defenses and eulogies including a “Life and Letters” published in 1885 by the Concord schoolmaster and friend of Emerson and Thoreau, Frank Sanborn, who had raised funds to support Brown's doomed raid, and, finally, the 1910 biography written by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's grandson, Oswald Garrison Villard, which was a prodigious work of objective research still sustaining the view that Brown's memory was “at once a sacred, a solemn and an inspiring American heritage.” But Villard's book was attacked, particularly by southerners, even so many years after Brown's death. Among other hostile responses, Robert Penn Warren's John Brown: The Making of a Martyr offered an indictment that convicted Brown—as detractors had in his lifetime—as an embezzler and cattle-thief whose Harpers Ferry adventure was an act of brigandism. Most persistent has been the belief that the enigmatic hero/demon could be explained as a sufferer from hereditary insanity—a theory which had been promoted originally by last-minute attempts by his own attorney and others to plead legally for his life. Or that he was whatever we mean when we speak of a religious fanatic, motivated by a conviction that he is an instrument of God's will acting on divine instruction. But the most persuasive of modern biographies is that of Stephen B. Oates, who, in 1970, proposed an undeified John Brown who moved erratically towards his messianic destiny yet remained an awesome and tragic figure.

Banks has denied that he seriously proposes any sort of historical revision—like Oliver Stone in his movie about the Kennedy assassination. He takes no part in the battles of the historians over Brown's character and the significance of his career. Just the same, the novelist, by the design of his narrative, fictively positions himself among those who seek out the truth. In an old-fashioned gesture to suggest veracity, his book presents itself as the confession of a lone survivor, Brown's son Owen, who almost did live long enough to be interviewed, as he claims, by one of Villard's researchers. This fictional Owen aims to shed light on the question of his father's sanity and the nature of his influence over others. Above all, to make him real, to show him as a man variously capable at many trades—a skillful subsistence farmer, a tanner and a sheep raiser, a cattle trader, a wool trader, and a land speculator—and also a Bible literalist convinced of the satanic nature of slavery. Plausibly, he depicts Brown as a prototypically divided American: “Much as he wished to be a warrior against slavery, he also wished to be, like most Americans, a man of means”—and he evokes for many pages the episodes of Brown's forays into speculations that just missed success—like an attempt to capture the international wool market when he took 200,000 pounds of American wool to London. Most of these commercial efforts were failures, and Brown was pursued by angry creditors and was the subject of suits for broken agreements for years on end.

Banks does a good deal to provide that density of incident and description true history longs for but can seldom achieve in the presentation of established facts. He extrapolates from the known to the unknown to give us the Brown family members, especially those five sons who moved with their father to Kansas in 1854—John Junior, Jason, Watson, Salmon, Oliver, and Owen—differentiating their strongly individual personalities while making their father's hold on them credible. Old Brown remains impenetrable as ever, like the formidable and invariably identical photographs of him with a fixed stare and set mouth that represent him again and again. All we know is what has always been evident from the outside—his armor of staggering pride and conviction.

Owen's personal account of himself is Banks's invention. As a reimaginer of the John Brown story Banks freely pretends, novelistically, that he can break history's code with the sort of guesswork that may tempt the historian at his peril—and fantasizes a secret true account only known by this mysterious loner son, Brown's most loyal lieutenant. Unfortunately, this story of Owen's is a contrived and unconvincing psycho-biography. We can understand his suppressed rebellion: “There was so much that I could not understand about this man, my father, and the life we led because of him—my thoughts, my questions, were blocked, occluded by the absolute rightness of his cause, which none of us could question, ever, and by the sheer power of Father's personality, the relentlessness of it, how he wore us down, until we seemed to have no personalities of our own, even to each other.” But Banks labors to provide a Freudian diagnosis, which is only postulated and never given substance—oedipal hostility born of Owen's unrelinquished longing for his long-dead mother. He hints at a sexual blockage which keeps Owen celibate except for a single early encounter with a prostitute, and he also suggests suppressed homosexual feelings for one of his father's black followers. This love results in a displaced sexual fixation on the black man's wife—and then a murder by accident when he hands this friend a cocked gun. It is his guilt for the black man's death, we gradually learn, that makes Owen the secret master of the tale we thought was John Brown's own. Banks's Owen comes to believe that he can expiate his guilt by becoming “an assassin with no principle or ideology and with no apparent religion, save one: death to slavery.” So, it is he, the solitary and silent one, who executes John Brown's wishes again and again but actually betrays his father by focusing his wandering will upon one end.

The older man's spasmodic anti-slavery zeal is not enough. Owen calls himself an Iago who becomes the true author of those happenings that alter the course of human events. In Kansas it is Owen whose implacable will compels his brothers and father to do their bloody work: “For without my having instigated the attack and then goaded them when they grew timorous and frightened by the idea, they would never have done it.” Projecting the hindsight of a modern historian back upon 1856 America, Owen says, “What Father called the will of God I now called history.” He sees himself as an apostle of historic necessity who showed his father and brothers that if they did not butcher those five at Pottawatamie,

the war in Kansas would have been over. Finished. In a matter of weeks, Kansas would have been admitted to the Union as a slave-state, and there would have been nothing for it then but the quick secession of all the Northern states, starting with New England, and the wholesale abandonment of three million Negro Americans to live and die in slavery, along with their children and grandchildren and however many generations it would take before slavery in the South was finally, if ever, overthrown. There would have been no raid on Harpers Ferry, certainly, and no Civil War, for the South would not have objected in the slightest to the breakup of the Union.

I could only put Cloudsplitter down in disbelief when I came upon this “disclosure” by an Owen become a madly prescient historian. As I observed in the beginning of this report, it is the novel's fate and obligation to try to explain human experience, and historical novels sometimes propose explanations that connect the scattered events of history with a paranoid insistence—but the makers of real history are rarely so conscious. Owen says, “No little thing in our lives is without meaning. I did what I did, my duty, in order to free slaves. I did it to change history.” Of course, however unlikely it seems that a real Owen Brown could have spoken so, he is terrifyingly right in declaring the efficacy of terror. “The terror and the rage that we caused with those murders ignited the flames of war all across Kansas, to be sure, and all across the southern states and in the North as well.” Banks's revisionary fictional history goes on to Harpers Ferry with Owen—who manages to escape when the raid fails—but it does not recapitulate the trial and execution of the displaced hero, John Brown.

Paul Binding (review date 15 September 2000)

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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 of town or suburb. Similarly their occupants, though they may remain in their trailers, indeed in the same park, for many years, never quite form, or even add up to, a community—however cognisant they are of one another's doings, whatever the friendships or enmities that develop between them. Their mode of living preserves (as it derives from) a detachment, which with advancing age becomes just another name for loneliness. They are widows and widowers, divorcees and bachelors and retired Army officers, a black man in a white society, a homosexual in a heterosexual society—all of them, man and woman, adult and child, basically alone in the world.

Viewed thus, the park is, Banks suggests, the perfect metaphor for late twentieth-century American society; the connections between the inhabitants are fractured ones, the shared vocabulary, which at times can promote enthusiastic alliances, is inadequate, lacking in richness or civilized subtlety. Russell Banks called one of his collections of stories simply Trailerpark, and seven of those included here [in The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks] come from that 1981 publication, including two of novella length—“The Fisherman” and “The Guinea Pig Lady”—and a shorter tale, emotionally the equal of these two superb pieces, “Dis Bwoy, Him Gwan”. The Trailerpark stories interrelate. Indeed, for one so concerned with the fragmentation of society and a culture too widely dispersed to give required sustenance, Banks is an unusually rooted author. The Trailerpark is, we learn, sited a few miles outside a New Hampshire mill-town which Russell calls Catamount, situated on the shore of a lake (shaped like a turkey, with an island where the turkey's eye should be), and it contains twelve trailers numbered and itemized most precisely. Most of the thirty-one stories in The Angel on the Roof take place in Banks's native New Hampshire, the Granite State, with Catamount not so much a setting as a recurrent and dominant character. And the inter-relations can be found in stories other than the Trailerpark ones.

Banks has arranged his work (as he explains in his afterword) in an imaginative order of his own choosing. This means that we encounter, early on, episodes from personal histories which cast light on what is presented to us later. In “Dis Bwoy, Him Gwan”, we witness the appalling death of a frightened college student, Bruce Severance, murdered by two drug-dealers to whom he has been selling inferior Granite State wild hemp. Later, in “The Guinea Pig Lady”, we meet Bruce again in all his youthful complacency, and our knowledge of his fate endows his activities—his lazy love-making, his second-hand but sincere little speeches—with a terrible pathos. In “Firewood”, with its vivid evocation of the onset of New England winter, an elderly man, Nelson Painter, is shown in hard-drinking boredom, haunted by his failed relationships with his grown-up sons, one of whom, Earl, is on pleasant, indeed jaunty terms with his father. “Queen for a Day”, 132 pages later, clarifies this puzzling situation. We are back in Earl's boyhood, at the time when he is coping with the break-up of his parents' marriage, angry with his father, passionately solicitous towards his mother. But we watch the growth of his desire for everything to alter and turn amiable, for all emotional hostilities to cease, which will condition his adult behaviour—especially to his ageing father. Banks's insights into the reactions of a boy to his parents' discord are attentive to the inconsistencies and intensity of a teenager's feeling.

Russell Banks is perhaps best known in Britain as the author of Continental Drift (1985) and Rule of the Bone (1995), but he has been writing short stories since his college days when he fell in love with the medium.

[It] thrills me still. It invites me today, as it did back then, to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, and more broadly comic than is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance and compromise.

From the order in which they were written, one can see how his writing matured after his second collection The New World (1978); some of the most successful work here—for example, “Djinn”, a nerve-rasping account of the impact of Congolese Africa on an impressionable young American businessman—are recent, published in book-form for the first time.

This volume's cast of construction workers, trailer trash, men blundering from one woman to the next, and of the mixed-up sons they beget—Banks's world is very much a male one—will inevitably bring Raymond Carver and the “dirty realists” to mind. And yet the kinship, is, I think, more cultural than artistic or intellectual. Carver's—and Tobias Wolff's—method is the foreshortened epiphany, while Russell probably distrusts the epiphanic. His tales demand a stretch of time and require some mode of apprehension that contradicts as well as appropriates linear presentation. In story after story, Banks sets up tensions between the historically sequential and the a-historically true. Perhaps the most powerful instance of this is “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story”. Moving in and out of first-person narration, Banks gives us a history—of the relationship between a good-looking man and a homely woman—which we believe ends in her death. It is only on the last page that we see that the events and their conclusion are both impositions on external reality by the guilty male, who behaved to Sarah with what he views as uncharacteristic, but reprehensible, cruelty.

This story is a good example of what it is that makes Banks so important and impressive a writer: his unflinching belief in mercy. It is his strong sense of the need for mercy that makes of some of his most ambitious stories—“Plains of Abraham”, “The Guinea Pig Lady”, “Sarah Cole”—effective challenges to those compromising qualities in the conventionalized bourgeois self which he has so eloquently berated.

Kathleen Snodgrass (review date spring 2001)

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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 realistic fiction: “Besides furnishing a plausible abode for the novel's world of feeling, place has a good deal to do with making the characters real, that is, themselves, and keeping them so. … Place, then, has the most delicate control over character too: by confining character, it defines it.” These characters must necessarily be inhabitants of a “chink-proof world of appearance,” a world that these five books under review all share. …

Russell Banks's collection of thirty-one stories, The Angel on the Roof, has been culled from four previously published books of stories and arranged, he tells us in an author's note, “thematically and dramatically” rather than chronologically. In prose that's muscular and supple, knowing and compassionate, Banks creates wonderfully memorable characters, especially when he is writing about the working-class families—most notably his own—of his native New England. These stories, which make up more than half the book, are often set in the small town of Catamount, New Hampshire, its rural environs, or in the trailer park outside of town. The sense of place—or, more to the point, the seemingly inescapable pressure of place on psyches and relationships—is an essential thematic element.

What most distinguishes Banks's New England is the wintry clime, winter being the season of choice in these stories though the mood is not necessarily chilly or bleak. Merle Ring, the protagonist of “The Fisherman,” one of the collection's longest and most entertaining stories, lives for winter and spends his days and nights ice fishing on the frozen lake in his carefully constructed bob-house, a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey at the ready. The story begins with a connoisseur's keen-eyed appreciation of winter's onset, culminating in the view from within the pitch-black bob-house at the world below: “The light filtered through the ice is still, hard, and cold, like an algebraic equation, and you can watch the world pass through it with a clarity, objectivity, and love that is usually thought to be the prerogative of gods.”

The human equation most engages Banks, and he scrutinizes it with a bemused fondness that never lapses into sentimentality. In “The Fisherman,” Banks introduces a cast of characters, working-class denizens of the trailer park, who will appear in subsequent stories. When Merle wins two lotteries—giving away the first in never-to-be-repaid loans to his neighbors, casually tossing the second windfall in a cigar box—his neighbors' thoughts turn obsessive and proprietary: “The money gave him power, and the longer he neither acted nor reacted to the presence of that money, the greater grew his power.” In a wonderfully comic and chaotic scene, the story comes to an appropriately allegorical close.

The story is unique in the collection for its sly, Olympian detachment, a reflection of the protagonist's bead on the world. In the main, Banks tends to take a harder, closer look at his characters, many of them stymied by bad luck and worse husbands, by self-serving choices and rationalizations, and, like those in Manley's work, by fantasies of escape or rescue. Banks's stories based on his own family—a hard-drinking, womanizing father who abandons his embittered, long-suffering wife and their three children—are among his strongest. By the book's end, we've seen this family from different perspectives and in different time periods; we've heard the stories they each tell themselves, stories that even as they seem to let their tellers off the hook really affix them more firmly to it.

Nelson Painter, the protagonist of “Firewood,” is the now-aged father married to his second wife but most deeply attached to vodka. In a quietly horrific scene, Banks describes Nelson's first (6 a.m.) drink of the day:

a deliberate, slow act as measured and radiant as a sacrament, as sweet to him as the sun rising over the winter-burnt New Hampshire hills, as clean as new frost. … He sips at the vodka steadily, as if nibbling at it, and his gratitude for it is nearly boundless, and though he appears to be studying the darkness out the window, he's seeing only as far as the glass in his hand and is thinking only about the vodka as it fits like a tiny, pellucid pouch in his mouth, breaks into a thin stream, and rolls down his throat, warming his chest as it passes and descends into his stomach, where the alcohol enters his blood and then his heart and brain, enlarging him and bringing him to heated life, filling the stony, cold man with light and feeling and sentiment, blessing him with an exact nostalgia for the very seconds of his life as they pass, which in this man is as close to love as he has been able to come for years, maybe since childhood.

In “The Guinea Pig Lady,” Marcelle recognizes the deep fatigue in another woman's face as her own, though by now her children are grown:

Because she had raised them herself, while at the same time fending off the attacks of the man who had fathered them on her, she thought of her life as work and her work as feeding, housing, and clothing her three surviving children and teaching them to be kindly, strong people, despite the fact that their father happened to have been a cruel, weak person. A life like that, or rather, twenty-five years of it, can permanently mark your face and make it instantly recognizable to anyone who happens to be engaged in similar work.

And in “Queen for a Day,” one of the most wrenching stories, eldest son Earl writes long, urgent letters to Jack Bailey—host of the 1950's TV show—after his father has abandoned the family. At age twelve, Earl is weighed down with responsibilities and fears: “Often, late at night, lying in his squeaky, narrow cot next to his brother's, Earl would say to himself, ‘I'm the man of the house now,’ and somehow just saying it, over and over … like a prayer, made his terror ease back from his face, and he could finally slip into sleep.”

Several of Banks's nonautobiographical stories lack the urgency and power so characteristic of his familial tales: “Djinn,” for example, is a carefully constructed fable that finally seems both pat and insubstantial, in part because it is an allegory with a highly realistic setting. Similarly, in the stories based on historical figures—Poe in “The Caul” and Simón Bolívar in “The Rise of the Middle Class”—there tends to be a deadly writer's-exercise air. In one of these, however, Banks takes as his protagonist a marginal historical figure, Jane Hogarth (the wife of the eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth), and creates a memorable character, a memorable story.

By all reports, the marriage was a happy one; after Hogarth's death his widow maintained his high standard of engraving work. But in Banks's story, “Indisposed,” the tall, ungainly Jane is trapped in a loveless match with a small (Hogarth wasn't quite five feet tall) and choleric tyrant. On this particular day, Jane drops out of her life for twenty-four hours: lying in bed, she is like “the trunk of a fallen tree moldering and sinking slowly into the damp, soft ground of the forest,” “a wagon without wheels.” The second-person narration gives the sense of both intense privacy (Jane addressing her literal self) and equally intense intimacy with the reader. Jane lies motionless in bed

like a great and dignified beast trapped in quicksand, resigned, yet with all its systems functioning efficiently in the darkness. … You pity it for its very presence in the world, its large and pathetic demands on space, the way it tries and constantly fails to avoid being seen. And the way it has at last given up that attempt, has at last agreed to be seen, to be wholly present. You pity it, and finally you understand it. You understand the body of Jane Hogarth.

One can hardly resist quoting at length from Banks's stories, with their abundance of startling, epiphanic images. The middle-aged protagonist in “Quality Time” has always considered himself a caring, selfless father to his only child. But hearing his now-grown daughter speak of their relationship, he “sees that he's been a man completely opposed to the man he thought he was.” The young protagonist of “Success Story” sets out to excel as a lowly furniture mover in a hotel, “Which was like deciding to succeed at being a prisoner of war, deciding to become a good prisoner of war.”

Banks is just as masterful in quiet, prosaic moments, as in the close of “The Moor.” Fifty-year-old Warren has just had a brief reunion with an eighty-year-old woman whom he hasn't seen since their brief affair, thirty years ago: “Time's come, time's gone, time's never returning, I say to myself. What's here in front of me is all I've got, I decide, and as I drive myself through the blowing snow it doesn't seem like much, except for the kindness that I've just exchanged with an old lady, so I concentrate on that.”

In “Place in Fiction” Welty describes the writer as “seeing double, two pictures at once in his frame, his and the world's. … It is his clear intention—his passion, I would say—to make the reader see only one of the pictures—the author's—under the pleasing illusion that it is the world's.” Banks is a master of such illusions, crafting memorable stories out of ordinary lives without straining for effect or significance.

Further Reading

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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.

Dodd commends the protagonist of Rule of the Bone as a “perceptive” and “compelling” character.

Lawson, Guy. “Teenage Wasteland.” Maclean's 108, no. 28 (10 July 1995): 42-3.

Lawson compares Rule of the Bone to Richard Ford's Independence Day.

Mowry, Jess. “Runaway Tale.” Nation 260, no. 23 (12 June 1995): 826-29.

Mowry argues that Rule of the Bone is ultimately an unrealistic, coming-of-age fantasy.

Postlethwaite, Diana. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 87, no. 1 (January 1999): 139-49.

Postlethwaite contrasts Cloudsplitter, Rilla Askew's The Mercy Seat, and Joyce Carol Oates's My Heart Laid Bare, contending that “to read them side by side makes for a provocative meditation on the geography our national psyche.”

Scott, A. O. “Abraham and Oedipus.” Nation 266, no. 9 (16 March 1998): 27-9.

Scott notes the Biblical allusions in Cloudsplitter and asserts that the novel is “brought alive by Owen's ambivalent, recognizably modern consciousness.”

Wachtel, Chuck. “Character Witness.” Nation 253, no. 21 (16 December 1991): 786-88.

Wachtel lauds The Sweet Hereafter for Banks's skillful ability to write about ordinary people.

Additional coverage of Banks's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 45; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 15; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 19, 52, 73, 118; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 37, 72; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 130, 278; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Novels for Students, Vol. 13; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 42.

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