Russell Banks is one of a group of American realists concerned with the latter-day condition of some “non-ethnic” Americans of very old stock, whose ancestors (some of them) settled in North America as long ago as the seventeenth century. But far from living in Federal houses or belonging to suburban country clubs, these particular “old” Americans are the ones who have stayed behind in decaying villages or hardscrabble farms, or else have drifted to the Sunbelt or the West, where they are likely to live rootlessly in trailers or “ranchettes,” hang out at bars, and work at odd jobs. Whether they have stayed put or moved on, they have, many of them, embraced, or inherited, failure, and they tend to ease their disappointment with hard drinking and activities that go with it, particularly deer hunting and beating up their wives and children. Banks’s turf, so to speak, is small-town New Hampshire, where he set the stories of Trailerpark, and from which Bob Dubois, the main character of the much celebrated Continental Drift, escaped to a life of increasing desperation and criminality in Florida.
Affliction takes place in Lawford, New Hampshire (population 750), in the cold belt of the state north of Keene and Concord, where in the narrow valleys and abrupt hillsides, “life has been characterized by winter, not summer”:
What is normal is snow from early November well into May; normal is week after week of low zinc-gray overcast skies; is ice that cracks and booms as, closer every night to the bottom of the lake, a new layer of water cools, contracts and freezes beneath the layer of old ice above it.
Lawford is the kind of place from which ambitious young people flee as soon as they can, leaving behind an aging population and a residue of younger inhabitants who are regarded by their parents as failures and who behave accordingly. One of those who have fled is the narrator of the novel, Rolfe Whitehouse, who has escaped to a university and now teaches high school in a suburb of Boston. His task—a task of exorcism—is to account for the “strange criminal behavior” and disappearance of his older brother, Wade, one of those who stayed.
Wade is a well-digger and part-time cop, a divorced man of forty-one, gloomy, hard-drinking, full of “dumb belligerence.” We first encounter him on Halloween, the night before the deer hunting season begins, when he is taking his reluctant daughter, Jill, to a costume party in Lawford’s town hall in the doomed hope that the child, who lives with her mother in Concord, will have a good time, perhaps win a prize for her tiger costume, and gratefully respond to her father’s love for her. We then follow Wade for two eventful weeks during which his already damaged life unravels to the point where he goes on a mad and murderous rampage,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.