Russell Banks Banks, Russell (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Russell Banks 1940–-

American short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

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.

Biographical Information

The eldest of four children born to working-class parents, Banks was raised in Barnstead, New Hampshire. As a youth he endured many hardships, including living on the brink of poverty and his parents' divorce. Banks enrolled at Colgate College in 1958, but left after only eight weeks because he felt like “a poor kid” among “the sons of the captains of American industry.” After this experience, Banks decided to join Fidel Castro's revolutionary army in Cuba. His funds took him only as far as St. Petersburg, Florida, however, where he lived in a trailer park, worked a variety of odd jobs, and began writing short fiction. Banks left Florida in the mid-1960s and traveled to the Yucatán and Jamaica, experiences he would later incorporate into his fiction. Deciding to continue his education, Banks earned an English degree from the University of North Carolina in 1967. He has since taught literature at such institutions as Sarah Lawrence College and Princeton University.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In his early works, Banks experimented with a variety of literary forms and techniques, revealing a talent for blending fantasy into realistically detailed stories. In the short story collections Searching for Survivors and The New World, he subtly merges extraordinary elements with ordinary ones. For example, in the story “The Conversions,” Banks introduces a vision of Jesus Christ into his portrait of an emotionally confused adolescent. In the early 1980s, Banks began to focus on social problems, addressing issues like poverty and discrimination in his fiction. In Trailerpark, a work comprised of thirteen interrelated stories, he examines how the poor, uneducated residents of a trailer park community in New Hampshire contend with alcoholism, greed, and loneliness. In his next collection, Success Stories, Banks reveals the anxiety and despair of life in a small, working-class town. The Angel on the Roof collects thirty of his short stories from previous collections.

Critical Reception

Critics praise Banks's depiction of working-class people struggling to overcome poverty, alcoholism, alienation, self-destructive relationships, and overwhelming despair. His fiction has been lauded for its lyrical prose, well-defined characters, powerful voice, and narrative techniques. Autobiographical aspects of his work have also attracted interest, as scholars perceived his stories as an attempt to process the traumas of his youth. His work has been compared to that of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Searching for Survivors 1975

The New World 1978

Trailerpark 1981

Success Stories 1986

Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks 2000

Family Life (novel) 1975

Hamilton Stark (novel) 1978

The Book of Jamaica (novel) 1980

The Relation of My Imprisonment (novel) 1984

Continental Drift (novel) 1985

Affliction (novel) 1989

The Sweet Hereafter (novel) 1991

Rule of the Bone (novel) 1995

Cloudsplitter (novel) 1998

The Invisible Stranger: The Patten, Maine, Photographs of Arturo Patten (nonfiction) 1999

Sylvia Shorris (review date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Literature's Stepchild,” in Nation, Vol. 228, No. 5, February 10, 1979, p. 153.

[In the following review, Shorris offers a favorable assessment of The New World.]

The New World, by Russell Banks, is divided into two sections: “Renunciation,” in which his more conventional stories appear, and “Transformation,” where the writing is more experimental. “The Conversion,” which appears in the first section, tells of Alvin Stock, a 16-year-old New Hampshire boy, in the classic throes of tortured adolescence. Alvin hates himself for his masturbatory fantasies, his unending virginity and his doltishness in the presence of his father. At the same time he feels great tenderness toward his mother and younger sisters. Alvin's most excruciating sufferings are caused by his clumsiness with girls, and during one particularly painful school dance, he sees a vision of Christ which makes him decide to be a minister. We know, however, that this will not be the final resolution for Alvin, for there are no simple resolutions, and the story is too true, too credible, to provide us with any. Banks has perfect pitch for telling of the little near-deaths we have all suffered.

Less successful but more adventurous are the stories in the second part of the book. These deal with actual people in imaginary situations: a weary, aging Simon Bolivar contemplating his life and envying a...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Lawrence J. Dessner (review date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The New World, in The American Book Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, Summer, 1979, pp. 9–10.

[In the following review, Dessner praises the variety of stories found in The New World.]

Readers unfamiliar with the work of Russell Banks might do well to begin with the last and title story of his new collection, The New World. Here a preposterous epic poem is described, and an old moral fable told, and both related to the intersecting lives of their authors. What matters, our narrator tells us, is “the spark that … flew” from the lives to the literary creations: “That spark was everything. It's how one forgives oneself and others.” This helps us see that the stories Banks' characters tell, plain people as well as professional novelists, in whatever genre, whether committed to paper or not, are not simply good or poor literature nor merely rationalizations, confessions, justifications, or sublimations, but their authors' best and only way to forgive themselves and others. But in a world in which uncertainty has become a principle, fictions are problematic. They lead less surely to illumination than to a web of infinite regression. Making fictions, “puttering away at signs of self that are larger than self,” is what the characters in The New World do. In the novel, Hamilton Stark, the narrator and the reader are themselves caught by their own needs in the same web.

The ten “tales” of The New World, despite their common theme, exhibit great variety of subject, style, form, and mood. We meet a forty-three-year-old man, freed at last from responsibility to his aged father, who with marvelous innocence, inquires of his friends' wives about their willingness to marry him. Imagining new lives, they all throw themselves at his, ah, feet! The New England townspeople find relief from their habitual pessimism by imagining that, at least in the case of “The Perfect Couple,” the future can be predictable and good. A wealthy young woman strides into the raw proletarian life she had imagined: “I'll have to write about this afterwards,” she says. What she writes “afterwards” is not what she would have written before. The second section of the book, “Transformation”—the first is called “Renunciation”—begins with a shift to the Jamaica of 1815. Simon Bolivar meditates on his life's purpose in a story narrated in the second person and aptly, if ironically, titled, “The Rise of the Middle Class.” The same narrative form gives us next William Hogarth's wife Jane, and then Edgar Allan Poe. The author of “The Raven,” having explained to a select group of admirers how he came to write the poem, returns to his hotel room and meditates on the paradox that “man is always amazed at what is most rational.” It is the irrational that tortures Poe with the impossible task of remembering his mother's face: “You know that if you can look directly at your own face, you will be able to remember your mother's face.” The mirror in his room will not do. Even a mirror involves an indirection. The story is not, cannot be, about what one finds in the mirror. It is about the desire to look into and past it.

Banks' people seek the control of comprehension: “One is never at a loss for an explanation for somebody else's behavior, so long as he's not overly concerned with being correct. What terrifies a people is the chance that they might not be able to come up with an explanation at all.” So, Penny Cate's survivor speaks of how his wife made it possible for him to endure and accept her dying. His commentary is strikingly at odds with the facts he relates—one thinks of Browning's grotesque Duke—but as he says to himself at the story's end, “There's quite a lot of my life to remember before I run out of things to say. People must do this a lot. It's probably something given to us by God to help us get around the hard parts of life.” Banks would not put it with such bathetic self-indulgence or naïveté, but there is in his stories a sympathy behind the shock and comedy and wit of their surfaces.

By far the longest story in the...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Life behind the Fiberglass Curtains,” in Book World, The Washington Post, Vol. 11, No. 4, October 4, 1981, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yardley contends that Trailerpark “is an odd, quirky book that offers satisfactions different from those provided by the conventional, or even unconventional, novel.”]

The dust jacket copy of Trailerpark begins with this curious plea: “Read this book as you would a novel—from the beginning straight through to the end.” Inasmuch as Trailerpark is elsewhere described by its publisher as “a novel,” it's difficult to imagine how else to read it—from the middle to the end to the...

(The entire section is 1144 words.)

Craig Hansen Werner (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Many Mirrors: Joyce's Techniques,” in Paradoxical Resolutions: American Fiction Since James Joyce, University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 34–50.

[In the following excerpt, Werner explores the influence of James Joyce's narrative technique on Banks's Searching for Survivors.]


Although [James] Joyce did not invent the epiphany, he effectively “patented” it. Stephen Dedalus' theory of the epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” capitalizes upon the...

(The entire section is 2190 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Success Stories, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 22, 1986, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Eder provides a positive assessment of Success Stories.]

Quite steadily, and often powerfully, Russell Banks has been devising fictional varieties of the “this is poison” labels on cigarette advertisements.

Our society's promise of an affable world of clean microdots and expanding consumption—the equivalent of the pool-side set blithely puffing away—has lethal side effects, he tells us. Unlike cigarette ads, this easygoing social gospel comes without warnings; so here is Banks.

He is not much...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Fred Pfeil (review date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “More than Zero,” in the Nation, Vol. 243, No. 7, September 13, 1986, pp. 226–28.

[In the following mixed assessment of Success Stories, Pfeil asserts that Banks “has put in enough time in working-class America to have an exact sense of what its dreams and betrayals feel like and how they work.”]

No one … will ever accuse Russell Banks of gorgeous writing: his prose has the precise force of a steady, measured outrage. Which is not to say he is not skilled—only that the craft he was honing through the 1970s in Searching for Survivors and Hamilton Stark has now been placed at the service of a terrible probity.


(The entire section is 777 words.)

Isabel Fonseca (review date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Moving Upwards,” in the Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1986, p. 920.

[In the following essay, Fonseca offers a mixed review of Success Stories.]

Russell Banks's novel Continental Drift, published in the UK last year (TLS, October 25, 1985), traces the fate of two unsimilar families—one from Haiti and the other from New Hampshire—as they travel to Florida in search of the idea of America. The newcomers' innocent dreams of opportunity inevitably collapse into nightmares of exploitation, humiliation and death. Rude awakenings are also the subject of Success Stories, although, as befits the shorter form, the migrations tend to...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Ross Leckie (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Plot-Resistant Narrative and Russell Banks's ‘Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, Summer, 1994, pp. 407–13.

[In the following essay, Leckie analyzes Banks's narrative technique in “Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat.”]

If much of contemporary literary theory emphasizes the cultural production of class, race, and gender in American fiction, contemporary fiction that utilizes the resources of narrative minimalism to explore issues of cultural division—fiction by such writers as Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, Susan Minot, and Russell Banks—increasingly provides the context for...

(The entire section is 2905 words.)

Robert Niemi (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Apprentice Fiction: Searching for Survivors,” in Russell Banks, Twayne Publishers, 1997, pp. 47–63.

[In the following essay, Niemi categorizes the stories comprising Searching for Survivors and surveys the major themes of the collection.]

Nobody had enough imagination.

—John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

With the short stories that eventually comprised his first collection, Searching for Survivors (1975), Banks continued to use his writing to process the traumas of his youth and young manhood.1 Yet, unlike the poetry, Searching for...

(The entire section is 7088 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Faggen, Robert, and Barry Munger. “Russell Banks: The Art of Fiction.” Paris Review 40, No. 147 (Summer 1998): 50–88.

Banks discusses his major influences, his childhood, and his creative process.

Long, J. V. “New Collections, New Pleasures.” Commonweal 113, No. 18 (24 October 1986): 570–72.

Positive review of Success Stories.

Reeves, Trish. “The Search for Clarity: An Interview with Russell Banks.” New Letters 53, No. 3 (Spring 1987): 44–59.

Banks touches on the role of writer in society as well as his narrative technique.


(The entire section is 136 words.)