If there can be said to be a prototypical “man’s writer” firing from the front lines of American fiction today, Russell Banks is the one with the highest kill ratio. His writing is consummately self-assured, well built, as filling as meatloaf. His descriptions of the sounds and workings of machinery–boat engines, car exteriors, airplanes, even, memorably, a grader reluctantly used as a snowplow–are applied as lovingly as oil to a favorite gun stock. The women in his fiction are long-suffering, and their author has abundant sympathy for them, as he does for all those who are circumstantially helpless or downtrodden, but they are colored with chalk pastels. His men are pure Fauve.
Banks is also a man’s writer because he is so frighteningly adept at what amounts to neurological cross-sections of the male psyche, particularly the patrilineal dimensions of a working-class variety of emotional brutality. His men, often caught in dead-end lives in forlorn dead-end New England mill towns, want desperately to go somewhere but lack the means or a suitable vehicle, and while spinning their wheels, end up only flinging mud in every direction. The writer knows how to draw a bead on tragedy.
In Affliction (1989), he constructs a Molotov cocktail of a novel centered on a doomed loser named Wade Whitehouse, and for more than 300 careful pages he fills the bottle with gas and rags and then anoints it with a lit match. Whitehouse is the kind of man we are not predisposed to understand, as he is constitutionally resistant to understanding himself. But Banks nonetheless fits him out with a full-blooded humanity, and finally we understand too much–about how an ability to love, if not installed during childhood, is like a motor with no belt drive.
Banks accomplishes this, as usual, by methodically amassing concrete details: all that machinery, lovingly attended to by the writer because it is similarly cared for by his characters; in the case of Wade Whitehouse, the neat motif of a recurrent toothache, its pain level a barometer of its sufferer’s emotional weather and its violent end a symbol of his inability to read the meteorological report.
Banks excels at depicting lives that are unraveling: starting from a place where they are already half undone, a fact known to all but those to whom it is happening; there’s still some hope left in them, but we watch from the outside as the yarn gets pulled and the stitches come undone and finally there’s nothing left but a pile of loose fibers. The people realize too late that they’ve been present at their own undoing. Banks’s best genre, plied in both novel and short story, is domestic tragedy.
Yet Banks is also possessed of what is termed a social conscience, and he cannot content himself with personal drama alone. There are pressing global issues to make people aware of, goddamn it, the kind everyone seems to persist in ignoring. The buildup of steam from Banks’s incredulity that we are all so obscenely self-involved gives his bigger novels their propulsive force. Or at least their undercurrent of impatience. In Continental Drift (1985), he sets two different stories in motion–that of Bob Dubois, oil burner repairman from the depopulated darks of central New Hampshire, and that of Vanise Dorsinville of Haiti, victim of brutish forces both bigger and smaller than she–and with only faintly visible saw and hammer marks in his structure, he builds a spectacular collision for them in the end. Here, too, the male lead is meticulously drawn, emotional shading well worked over until it assumes myriad black depths: