The Sweet Hereafter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

There’s something disturbingly formulaic about this new novel by Russell Banks. It is as though he asked himself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” and “Who do you blame?” The result is this novel about a schoolbus accident in a small New York town in which fourteen children are killed. Banks then uses a common convention when an inexplicable event must be recounted; he tells the story from several points of view. He begins with the bus driver, a self-sufficient woman past middle age, then shifts to a widowed father who was driving behind the bus the morning it crashed, moves to a big city negligence lawyer who has come to town to make the guilty parties pay, then comes to a somewhat surprising climax with a fourteen-year old girl who survives the crash but whose hopes of being a cheerleader and a beauty queen are destroyed by a spinal injury that leaves her confined to a wheelchair. The denouement takes place with a return to the bus driver whose scapegoat function is emphasized by a symbolic demolition derby.

To make things more interesting, the bus driver’s husband is a stroke victim with almost preternatural wisdom, the widowed father is having an affair with one of the other grieving parents, the lawyer’s daughter is a runaway addict who discovers she is HIV-positive, and the future beauty queen has her own dark secret. The accident and the arrival of the lawyer drive many of the grieving parents to pursue disruptive lawsuits,...

(The entire section is 562 words.)