Review: In Russell Banks’ Florida novel ‘The Magic Kingdom’

On the shelf

The Magic Kingdom

By Russell Banks

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“Florida has served as a dumping ground for the world’s garbage since its beginnings,” writes Russell Banks in his fourteenth novel, The Magic Kingdom. “This is where you go when your prospects have ended somewhere else.”

The person saying this is a retired real estate investor named Harley Mann, the latest in a line of concerned Florida men who have populated Banks’ oeuvre. His 1985 masterpiece Continental Drift was about a broke family man who stumbles into human trafficking in the Sunshine State; The protagonist of 2011’s “Lost Memory of Skin” is a convicted sex offender living under an overpass in Florida. Harley isn’t quite as concerned – he’s made his fortune, hit his 80s – but like the sinkholes he keeps referring to, something is crumbling underneath. And while Kingdom doesn’t have the harrowing power of Banks’ best novels, including 1989’s Drift and Affliction, it’s a gripping morale tale.

Harley, we learn early on, is a product of American ideology, although ideology is always changing. His parents were Russinites, a short-lived group of 19th-century utopian socialists. When Harley’s father dies, his mother and siblings stumble upon a post-Civil War plantation steeped in violence and cruelty. (A young Harley witnesses a drunken man meet his end on a table saw.) Brighter prospects appear when the family finally moves to New Bethany, a Shaker colony near Orlando, around the turn of the 20th century .

In Banks’ frame, Harley recalls all of this toward the end of his life in 1971, after selling his land to Disney executives planning Walt Disney World. (The implication is that Shakerism has been replaced by another dubious ideology, capitalism.) He doesn’t write this down, but says it out loud on a series of tapes to better suggest to Banks that Harley is literally a lone voice. He’s also a bit out of the way. His experiences in New Bethany as a teenager left him obviously obsessive and slightly warped – he keeps a scale model of the colony in his home and hints at the horrifying story he has to tell, but remains chary about the details. It is “a place I regard as the first wound in a wounded life,” the site of “a terrible, unforgivable betrayal,” and home to “the cause of untold catastrophic loss and pain.”

"The Magic Kingdom" by Russell Banks

Enough already: it was a place with a girl. Teenage Harley works diligently to be an “ideal Shaker boy” — celibate, community-minded, removed from the worries and chaos of the outside world (lettered with a capital W). But he also can’t take his eyes off Sadie, a young woman who regularly visits New Bethany to recover from the sanatorium where she’s being treated for tuberculosis. He is determined to mind his own business in the colony – more specifically, the beehives, which he emphatically describes as “like a whole town in miniature”. But attraction can conflict with good Shaker ideals. The colony’s leader, Elder John, spends time with Sadie, who inspires jealousy, and Harley learns as much about hypocrisy as he does about love or lust.

To Banks’ credit, the chaos that ensues is more complex than a matter of forbidden love. Indeed, the kind of plot mechanics that could make this a romance are largely absent; The elements that make Sadie attractive or even a great character are not fleshed out. Instead, Banks is more interested in the philosophical questions raised by Harley and Sadie’s connection. Can any ideology survive under the weight of our clumsy humanity? Does a belief system mitigate or fuel our individual greed? How much of our judgment of others’ shortcomings is a way of ignoring our own? Is the law equipped to deal with morality, especially in the face of power?

“The Magic Kingdom” is Harley’s story, but it revolves around a line from Elder John, a former convict who suspects his own ideology. “You either give up your freedom to the system or you leave it,” he tells Harley. OK, but where to go?

Although Banks deals with big, allegorical things – Harley Mann’s last name is indication enough – the novel does not lack air. Dramatic, almost biblical events abound: enslavement, panthers, sinkholes, fires, and other disasters worthy of a job. As always, Banks writes magnificently about the state’s natural wonders, pointing out the strange allure a place must have to attract the world’s garbage: “The lake was smooth, and the low mangroves and palm trees that marked the distant shore, were etched sharp against the pale blue, cloudless sky.”

But Florida’s strangest and most charismatic specimens are its residents, from Elder John with his rhyming lectures on proper table manners to his acquaintance Cyrus Teed, a complete crackpot who promoted the idea that “the earth was hollow and contained it all.” Universe.” This ideology never caught on; No one wants to imagine living in a world where we are so close to everything and everyone.

Harley was inspired to continue his narration after the arrival of “Mr. Walt Disney’s giant corporation up there southwest of Orlando.” But Banks writes with an eye to the present, as ideological disputes consume current discourse. The author makes no guarantees about this: betrayal and collapse are as much a part of American history as faith and happiness. There is a particular type of sinkhole in Florida where a “herd of cattle could suddenly be swallowed up by the earth.” But sinkholes of all kinds are everywhere.

Athitakis is a writer based in Phoenix and the author of The New Midwest. Review: In Russell Banks’ Florida novel ‘The Magic Kingdom’

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