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.
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.
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.