Toward the end of Russell Banks’s new novel, Lost Memory of Skin, in what might seem a digression, someone called the Writer turns up and discusses the fate of Ernest Hemingway with the main character, the Kid, a twenty-two-year-old convicted felon living in part of the Everglades. The Writer says:
Hemingway blowing off his head with a shotgun in the kitchen while his wife is asleep upstairs. There’s a statement for you.
Yeah? What was he stating?
He spent his life killing animals with guns. Big dangerous animals like lions and water buffalo and rhinos. He wasn’t about to kill himself in bed with a bottle of vodka and a jar of sleeping pills or by taking a flying leap off the Golden Gate. Not a big dangerous animal like Ernest Hemingway.
Who was he stating it to? That he was a big dangerous animal.
History, naturally. Literary history.
This exchange pinpoints at least two subjects Banks often returns to: cruelty to animals and the implications for male writers of conceptions of manliness in the American literary tradition. When it comes to the anxiety of influence, American women writers seem to have an easy relation to their gentler and more urbane literary ancestresses; but men writing in America have to contend with the shade of Hemingway, and the longstanding tradition of manliness he tried to represent. They may reject that tradition but they can’t ignore it, though Henry James may have been trying to by making himself into an Englishman. Most of the ongoing mining of Ernest Hemingway’s character, sexuality, and personal history arises from our sense that he embodied the paradoxes and conflicts in masculinity as Americans have constructed it. Was he a bully or a baby, brave or cowardly, gay or straight, tough or weak? These are issues that American writers and scholars return to again and again.
These are also issues Banks’s main characters confront in Hemingway’s shadow, and not only in this new novel; it is also very dense with symbols freighted with social comment, as when the Writer says to the Kid, “So what about it, friend? Shall we take a little ride in my rental? It’s a Lincoln Town Car…,” and the Kid replies, “I dunno. I gotta charge my shackle.”
There seem to be two sides of Russell Banks: one is the respected writer of often grim realistic novels in the manner of Dreiser or Zola, movingly portraying lives in which things go from bad to worse, to the discredit of an America where many things are wrong. Some of his most admired works fall into this category, Affliction (1989) and Continental Drift (1985), for example. But there’s also the novelist of considerable audacity and originality who speaks, for instance, in the voice of a woman founding a chimpanzee rescue facility in Liberia (The Darling, 2004); or who imagines what …