On the shelf
Five Essential Novels by Russell Banks
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Novelist Russell Banks, who died Sunday in New York at the age of 82, has spent a six-decade career working on a handful of favorite subjects: the death of innocence in childhood; the ravages of working class life; the dubious attraction of Florida, New England or the Caribbean. However, these recursive efforts were not acts of simple repetition; they reflected an urge to dig deeper and deeper into issues that were most important to him. “Novelists keep going back to images that hold power for them and recycle them, reuse them in a different context, approach them from a different angle to see what they’re proposing from there,” he said 1998 the Paris Review.
A two-time Pulitzer finalist, Banks published poetry, short stories, and novels in relative obscurity for a decade before finding critical acclaim and mainstream success in the mid-1980s. In 1997, two adaptations of his novels became acclaimed films: Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. And he’s also written screenplays, including one for an unproduced film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But his books are the best place to get to know him and he worked until his death, publishing his latest novel, The Magic Kingdom, last November. For those who want to get to know him better now, these five favorites offer at least an entry point into his most important work.
The tale of a struggling New England worker and a Haitian woman whose lives intersect off the Florida coast is Banks’ great, brilliant epic – and the best place to start. Banks captures the sense that the American dream is fast falling on two fronts, delivering a melancholy but spirited attack on promises of easy money and human cruelty. Banks was determined, as the book’s final line states, “to help destroy the world as it is.”
Banks’ wintry, autobiographical sixth novel centers on the lifelong conflict between a dissolute New Hampshire police officer and his son. It’s a tale of violence, alcoholism and a truckload of toxic masculinity. In addition to being one of the most chilling depictions of home dentistry in American literature, it is also a compelling and intimate portrait of small-town life, well aware of its frustrations and limitations.
Chappie, the candid 14-year-old hero of this novel, abandons his abusive stepfather like Banks and makes his way from upstate New York to Jamaica, where he becomes involved in the drug trade. Between Chappie’s defiant voice (“You’ll probably think I’m making this all up…”) and a plot that turns on a black companion for the novel’s white suburban narrator, the novel immediately drew comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye ‘ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. But this is a grimmer boy’s book, less suitable for a classroom setting but more open about the harm adults do to children.
Banks’ most ambitious novel is a fictionalization of the life of abolitionist John Brown, who led a slave rebellion in Harpers Ferry in 1859 and was executed shortly thereafter. Told from the perspective of Brown’s son, Owen, the novel is Banks’ attempt to reconcile his obsession with the blemishes of American history, fathers and sons, and the “foolish, dreamy, sentimental celebrations” of the Great Man tales.
Banks’ last novel was a final story about a boy tragically beset by the whims of an adult. Narrator Harley recalls his time in a Florida Shaker colony in the early 1900s, where a budding romance eventually unbalances the entire community. The book contains some of Banks’ most lyrical lyrics, but the skeptical note is still there, deeply criticizing religious and capitalist gossip and denouncing the Sunshine State as a “reservoir for the world’s waste”.
Athitakis is a writer based in Phoenix and the author of The New Midwest.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-01-08/five-essential-russell-banks-books-cloudsplitter-affliction 5 Essential Russell Banks Books Including Cloudsplitter