Inexplicable mystery and the deep-seated human need to fix blame are the primary internal motivating forces of this new novel by Russell Banks. The external motivation, however, may well be the author’s desire to produce a commercially successful book, for Banks seems determined to include all the central concerns of modern society he possibly can: the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the economic depression of small-town America, the dilemma of the runaway teenager, the pandemic fear of AIDS, and the dark family secret of child abuse. The result is a work so packed with can not-fail social-interest items that its predictability quotient is inevitably high. Moreover, as suggested by the title, the “hereafter” of the tragic event is made “sweet” indeed by a calculated plot twist aimed at leaving a warm feeling of acceptance in the hearts and minds of readers.
Such a work is something of a departure for Banks, whose previous ten novels and collections of short stories have been more experimental in their style and more downbeat in their themes. Much of Banks’s fiction, such as his novel Hamilton Stark (1978) and the stories in his collection Trailerpark (1981), has featured a darkly comic perspective on the American dream, and his work has sometimes been criticized for its self-conscious experimentation and sermonizing. There is nothing comic nor experimental about The Sweet Hereafter. For the most part, this is a conventional novel meant to grab the reader’s attention and to hold it until the end.
Banks, however, does continue his artistic preoccupation with point of view. In The Sweet Hereafter, as in his previous novels The Book of Jamaica (1980) and Affliction (1989), Banks uses multiple points of view, telling his story of a school-bus accident in a small New York town in the Adirondack mountains in which fourteen children are killed by using four different characters: Dolores Driscoll, the straightforward and practical school bus driver who is made an outcast in the town because of the accident; Billy Ansel, a Vietnam veteran who was driving behind the bus when the accident occurred and who lost both his children in the crash; Mitchell Stephens, a hard-talking New York negligence lawyer who comes to town to urge the bereaved parents to bring suit against whoever might be responsible for the tragedy; and Nichole Burnell, a beautiful young girl whose hopes of becoming a beauty queen are destroyed by a spinal injury that leaves her in a wheelchair.
Whereas the primary plot of the story focuses on the town’s communal need to find a scapegoat for a tragedy that surpasses human understanding, the novel is packed with secondary plots to add complexity. Dolores Driscoll, whose personality is simple and unambiguous, is made more interesting by having an invalid husband who somehow has preternatural wisdom as a result of a stroke suffered six years previously; the Vietnam veteran’s life is made more complicated by his having an affair with one of the other grieving parents; the lawyer has a daughter in the big city who has run away from home to become a drug addict, a prostitute, and, inevitably, AIDS-infected; and the future beauty queen hides the taboo secret that she has been sexually abused by her father for many years.
Since the story is told by four different narrators who can present their own inner psychological and social conflicts as well as their external perspectives on the lives of the other characters in the novel, the interconnection of these various subplot lines is made to flow smoothly, although at times the reader has the uneasy feeling that the subplots are calculated to include a larger number of current social issues. Even though each character’s story blends into the next as the plot progresses, however, it is not plot that constitutes the primary interest in this novel but rather the nature of character itself, for Banks masterfully creates four quite separate individuals whose voices are unique and distinct. Although, as is inevitable in any fictional characterization, some element of stereotyping is necessary, each of the four voices in this polyphonic novel is individualized to create the illusion of personality.
The first movement of the novel begins with Dolores Driscoll’s story of the morning of the fateful accident and ends with the accident itself. The primary function of this first section is to introduce and personalize the fated children, to establish Driscoll’s role as a scapegoat figure, and to establish the ambiguous cause of the crash, if indeed “cause” can be determined. According to Driscoll, who is the only one in a position to know, she swerved the bus to avoid what she thought was a dog, or at least a blur or ghost of a dog, that ran across her path in a cloud of snow. Because the reader has no reason to doubt the truth of Driscoll’s account, it is thus established very early in the novel that the “real” cause of the bus’s plunge into the rain-filled quarry is an optical illusion, a failure to distinguish fantasy from reality.
The immediate aftermath of the accident is then recounted by the voice of Billy Ansel, who was driving behind the bus and thinking about having sex with his mistress when the tragedy occurred. It is he, with his own experience of the body bags of the Vietnamese jungles, who is given the horrible task of describing...
(The entire section is 2217 words.)