The Artist and the Upper Class

The Reserve

by Russell Banks
HarperCollins, 287 pp. $24.95

In a career spanning some forty years and sixteen books of fiction, Russell Banks has established himself as our foremost chronicler of hardscrabble lives in economically depressed northern New England and upstate New York. This may sound like an awfully small patch of literary ground, but Banks has created from it a body of work of unusual psychological complexity and visionary power. In Banks’s world, geography is a kind of grim destiny, with character—more specifically, his people’s incomplete grasp of their own—reliably finishing the job. Banks’s people usually live in towns where anyone with any sense has moved south (if only as far as Concord), leaving behind what can appear less a community than, as Banks put it in Affliction, “a lost tribe,…a sad jumble of families huddled in a remote northern valley against the cold and the dark.” When Banks’s characters venture further south, to Florida (Continental Drift) or the Caribbean (The Book of Jamaica, Rule of the Bone), the journey only highlights the bleak spiritual and emotional weather of the northern latitudes and the burned-out core of the American Dream itself. But whether they stay or go, their attempts to spring the trap of their own lives generally leads only to worse disaster.

In Continental Drift, the novel, published in 1984, that announced a new level of ambition and pushed him to the front ranks of American writers, Banks identified the motivating force of his fiction in his “white Christian man’s entwined obsession with race and sex and a proper middle-American’s shame for his nation’s history.” If the statement seemed dangerously general, Banks fleshed it out in a manner that remained resolutely, devastatingly particular. The untimely death of the New Hampshire oil burner repairman Bob Dubois, who drags his family to Florida only to be caught up in the drug trade, may be “nothing more than the shift of a number from one column to another,” from the ranks of those with a future, or at least a present, to the ranks of those for whom “all possibilities of…ever becoming historical, of…becoming a hero, are gone.” But Banks’s passionately precise telling gave it a depth and inexorability worthy of his title’s geological pretenses, and gave Bob Dubois himself a dignity his unpromising beginning and tawdry end would not seem to predict.

In his more recent novels, Banks has become more interested in those conventionally if ambiguously heroic actors in history, whether the radical abolitionist John Brown (Cloudsplitter) or the fictionalized former 1960s radical Hannah Musgrave (The Darling), a foot soldier in the Weather Underground who becomes the prized white wife of a Liberian government minister as that nation begins its descent into savage civil war. Banks’s new novel, The Reserve, continues this exploration of the lives of the extraordinary and historical, trading his customary epic scale and propulsive first- person narrative for something leaner and more cinematically glamorous. Here, Banks takes a flying …

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