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RUSSELL BANKS

by John A. McClure

 

Russell Banks

When The Darling, Russell Banks’ most recent novel, came out in 2004, The Nation described its author as “one of America’s most important living writers, one of a handful with the daring and the talent to plumb our history and the human heart for their deepest meanings.”

As readers we are indebted to writers across the centuries for their gifts of vision and art. But surely we owe a special debt of gratitude to our contemporary writers, for they enable us to see our own times, which we inhabit but mostly do not understand, with greater social and moral clarity. When I was a young reader encountering the great writers of the past for the first time, I remember pausing to wonder whether any writer could render the world I inhabited. Given the turbulence of things, the visceral power of all sorts of events, and my bottomless bafflement at their significance, it seemed highly unlikely. And it seemed even less likely that any writer would choose to chronicle the lives of the communities and people I knew: working class and lower middle class communities, unglamorous and anonymous people subject to ordinary forms of anger, confusion, and desire.

Then the books began to emerge. I read Banks’ Continental Drift shortly after it appeared and was elated. It is a novel in the great American mode of epic romance: Michiko Kakutani called it, in the New York Times, “a visionary epic about innocence and evil and a shattering dissection of American life”; anyone who has read it will concur. But Continental Drift is also a visionary treatment of present, mostly quotidian, American realities; not the realities of Manhattan and Hollywood and their privileged suburbs, but of the rural Rust Belt towns of the Northeast and the new strip towns of Florida. Middle and working class towns, working class anger and despair, working class dreams and migrations (“continental drift”). I knew these worlds firsthand, but in the haphazard, unfocused, and deeply conflicted way that we often know the places closest to us, the ones we are struggling to escape. In an utterly unnostalgic way, Banks brought these worlds into focus, mapped the powers and passions that shape them, endowed the lives they foster with moral significance and stark beauty. He did not make me want to stay at home in these worlds, but he kept me from dismissing as worthless the ways of being I thought I could not endure.

Banks works a similar magic again and again in his fiction. One set of his novels—Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, The Darling, and Cloudsplitter—consists of big, epic works that track human movement across America or from American zones of threadbare sufficiency to starkly desperate places such as Haiti, Jamaica, and Liberia. A second set, including Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, are sharply focused, emotionally intense studies of local lives in ruinous small town America. But I don’t mean to create a false dichotomy here. Banks’ global imagination is grounded in local settings and psyches. And his local worlds open onto other, larger realms. His novels are political in the best sense of the word: they trace the registration of contemporary social forces on human minds and hearts. And they are utterly persuasive. “I trust [Russell Banks’] portrait of America more than any other,” writes Michael Ondaatje, adding that “You will read America differently after these books.”

Many of us know that two of Banks’ novels have been made into films. The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1997; Affliction, directed by Paul Schrader with Nick Nolte in the lead, won an Academy Award in 1999. These are terrific films, true to the psychological and visual intensities of the novels themselves. But if you are just discovering Banks’ work, by all means read the novels first. Because Russell Banks is a splendid writer. The magic is in his words.

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Editor’s Note: Russell Banks read in the Rutgers Student Center on February 19, 2007. John McClure delivered a version of these remarks at the reading.

© 2007 Future Traditions Magazine
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