Internal Combustion

Internal Combustion

Could Russell Banks be retooling himself as a fabulist?


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:

He stands on the slippery sidewalk next to his station wagon, now a long white mound, and stares at the bar across the street, studies the small red neon sign flashing Irwin’s name at him like a beacon through the falling snow, then gazes up at the darkened blank windows of Doris’s apartment. His bear-like head droops, and glancing at the salt-covered pickup truck, cold and empty, still parked in front of his car, as if deserted in an old war, he looks down Depot Street toward the cannery and the river, and then back up Depot Street to Main. This is his whole world. He knows every square inch of its surface. For a second he studies the candy canes dangling from the lampposts, when all of a sudden, without a thought of it, he doubles up his right fist and holds it out in front of him, as if he were holding a hammer, or as if it were a hammer itself.

Banks can appreciate the simple straight line, too: “Darkness,” he writes in Continental Drift, “has fallen on them like an attitude.”

Yet much as he wants to make Vanise as true and real as Bob–and you sense he very, very much wants that; his profoundly egalitarian values depend on it–Vanise remains vague and foreign, a black-and-white picture of yet one more of the globe’s daily atrocities, front-page news today and dump-bound recycling tomorrow.

All this is why Banks’s new novel, The Reserve, may cause the reader to turn to the title page repeatedly to make sure it actually says “Russell Banks.” Well, we can be kind and call it “a departure.” The takeoffs begin in the first line: “When finally no one was watching her anymore, the beautiful young woman…” Note, please, that dead adjective, “beautiful.” The prose sometimes lumbers on, absent the rocking, steady, naturally powerful pacing that drives Banks’s other works; often it seems hard to believe that the author of such humanly compelling books as The Sweet Hereafter (1991) has created characters who move and speak but do not feel or live.

In a forgiving if not utterly perplexed mood, then, we might think: Ah, this simple style must be meant to convey a mythic feel; perhaps this is going to be one of those tales with a moral, so the literary stuff needs to make way. Yes, perhaps the great practitioner of rich American realism is going to retool himself as a fabulist. That explains the shorter book, too.

The book is set in New York’s Adirondacks in the summer of 1936, with forays into the fateful future of 1937; its protagonist, Jordan Groves, is modeled on Rockwell Kent, that titan of the woodcut. From Kent, Banks borrows a combative, self-involved persona, but one whose leftist politics made him a bit of all right; he went to his first socialist meeting when he was 22, and in 1927 he canceled a show at the Worcester Museum so as not to have any “relations of any public nature” with the state of Massachusetts, out of indignation at the Sacco and Vanzetti executions. Also that year he bought 257 acres near Au Sable Forks (Banks’s backyard) with a view of Whiteface Mountain, and built a house he named Asgaard, after the Norse home of the gods. (Banks has his version of Kent rejecting the name: “Jordan said no, too pretentious.”)

Kent was a social climber even as he espoused populism, and a womanizer although he claimed the moral high ground as his personal acreage. He entertained the artistic intelligentsia but also lived among the “natives” on his tours to Alaska, Greenland and Tierra del Fuego. It is this dichotomy that Banks tries to explore in this character, so he makes Groves a dashing romantic hero in a Waco biplane, full of contempt for the hardscrabble locals as well as the privileged moneyed class, on loan from F. Scott Fitzgerald, that populates the exclusive Great Camps of the Adirondacks.

The “reserve” of the title is the Tamarack Wilderness Reserve, a vast private holding for the use of wealthy politicos and industrialists, America’s aristocracy. The Reserve is where Groves first makes the acquaintance of the “beautiful” heiress Vanessa Von Heidenstamm, née Cole, a woman we are meant to see as fatally alluring, a siren of amorality in a world noisy with class struggle. But she remains inert on the page no matter how often the author refers to her charms–precisely because he primarily refers to her charms. Banks violates the number-one literary injunction to show, not tell, and so we are unmoved by his suggestions that Vanessa is mad, that there is a terrible secret here, and that a great artist is involved in both a personal struggle with his relationship to women and mortal combat with the large issues of the day, because he appears to mention these things in passing. Chunks of undigested exposition (“Neither servant nor boss, the Adirondack guides were throwbacks to men of an earlier era, when the region had not yet been settled by white people–solitary, self-sufficient hunters and trappers and woodsmen who thought of themselves as living off the land, regardless of who owned title to it”) nestle next to throwaway constructions (“Their passion rose slowly”). Jordan and Vanessa never lift off as successfully as the biplane does. In fact, only in the passages devoted to flying–there’s that loving gaze on the mysteries of internal combustion again–does the prose vibrate in the old Banks style.

It is impossible to read about Banks and his work without encountering a comparison to Theodore Dreiser, so let me continue the tradition. And it is apt, since the earlier master of social realism’s great novel An American Tragedy also projects matters of class and money against the screen of an Adirondacks murder that was carried out less in cold blood than in a trap laid by circumstances out of the perpetrator’s control. Sort of. Yet while Dreiser made his crime complex, both personal and bearing the weight of social ethics, thus worthy of the term “tragic,” Banks–by dressing his characters in costumes and greasepaint and setting them against a backdrop that looks awfully like a social studies textbook chapter on the rise of fascism in Europe–brings on himself the charge of melodrama instead.

In the first act Banks brings onstage the loaded gun of Jordan Groves’s politics, personally confused though they are (“The woman was nothing more than a socialite, for God’s sake. A parasite. Come the revolution, no more socialites”), yet by the final curtain it has not only not been fired but has been kicked off into the orchestra pit and forgotten there. Groves enlists to fight in Spain solely to ease a heartache.

With its brief and largely teasing entr’actes showing the near future (and the future ends of his main characters) on the world stage in the forms of the civil war in Spain and the flight of the Hindenburg, with its people set to sleepwalk through its pages, The Reserve reads like a sketch for a Banks novel rather than the finished work. If we imagine this happy possibility, we will be imagining a book four times as long, because that is what it would take to fully build motivations that feel organic instead of inserted. Humans who speak as humans, and not comic book figures: “‘You’re sure?’ Jordan said. ‘She’s really dead?'”–this question asked by a man who saw action in World War I and thus would be acquainted with the effect of a “fist-size” overflowing hole in someone’s chest. Revelations that are hard won, not bought at the dollar store: “But then she stopped smiling. No, she thought, nothing good or useful could come of what she had done.”

Of course, this slightness will be taken for “accessibility,” the bargain price everyone can afford, the mark of a commercial novel. But sometimes it’s the “big” novel of ideas, the “dark” or “difficult” one–Continental Drift comes to mind–that is truly accessible. This is because it telegraphs its aims by the very expansiveness of its structure; it is, after all, hard to do Big on the sly. (And what really are the qualities that make a novel “commercial”? A certain cowardice, perhaps, one that keeps it small not necessarily in length but in risk?) Banks may drop in all the references he wants to unemployment, ominous doings in Germany, Dos Passos and the post-Depression loss of manufacturing in small-town America, but if they remain exactly where they landed, the novel is hardly accessible. It is confusing because it is never made whole.

But The Reserve may still be appreciated as a question: an important one, illuminating to pose. Why write, at this moment in time, with an American government that is functionally a corporate dictatorship and the world suffering its usual dose of savagery, about the hopeful period of the New Deal and a creative-intellectual class that was passionately engaged in international affairs, even voluntarily fighting in the Spanish Civil War?

This question is, alas, its own answer. It leads to a depressing moment when you realize that probably few feel compelled to fight fascism abroad now, since it has been all but welcomed at home.

So this, perhaps, is why The Reserve feels bloodless next to Banks’s previous books: it’s driven by his own passionate engagement with injustice, which caused his disengagement with the literary requirements of the novel. In the face of these concerns, Banks’s considerable powers of description, his way of calling forth a cinematic richness from his prose, seem to have been squeezed to the very margins of the page, and indeed right off it. There’s more that’s missing than there is present. And what can you do with a novel that actually contains the phrase, “It was a bright sunshiny day”? There can be only one answer. Look forward to the next.

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