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, with which the novel ends.
Banks is particularly concerned with two dilemmas, the first to do with the consequences of a deer-hunting accident in which an obnoxious union official apparently stumbles and shoots himself while out in the woods with his guide, a local young man named Jack Hewitt. Wade, who is more than a little paranoid, convinces himself that Hewitt has murdered the union official at the instigation of Wade’s boss and the union man’s son-in-law who have been quietly buying up all the available property around Lawford. The other involves Wade’s clumsy attempts to reclaim the love of his estranged daughter and his decision to bring a custody suit against his embittered former wife. But these are only the main lines in a novel crowded—perhaps too crowded—with a great many other matters.
Beyond the events of those two weeks are a number of episodes from the past which Rolfe recreates in his determination to make sense of Wade’s condition. What has mattered most, we are led to believe, are the brutal beatings that Wade as a boy suffered at the hands of his father—sexually charged beatings that permanently affected Wade’s sense of himself as a man and led to uncontrolled and usually inappropriate outbursts of violence:
Pop’s huge fist descended and collided with the boy’s cheekbone. Wade felt a terrible slow warmth wash thickly across his face, and then he felt nothing at all. He was lying on his side, his face slammed against the couch, which smelled like cigarette smoke and sour milk, when there came a second blow, this one low on his back, and he heard his mother shout, “Glenn! Stop!” His body was behind him somewhere and felt hot and soft and bright, as if it had burst into flame. There was nothing before his eyes but blackness, and he realized that he was burrowing his face into the couch, showing his father his backside as he dug with his paws like a terrified animal into the earth.
While the younger brother can be fairly subtle about the psychological effects of such brutality on Wade, he can also be annoyingly obtrusive in his lengthy explanations of his own part in the story. Furthermore, Banks allows certain suspicions to arise concerning Rolfe’s reliability as a narrator and commentator. Are these convolutions necessary, the reader may well ask, perhaps longing for a return to the convention of the omniscient narrator, who is free to invent and comment as much as he likes without fuss or apology.
When Banks drops the guise of the younger brother and simply presents his material directly and dramatically, he reveals himself as a powerful and sometimes poetic writer who knows the texture of the things he describes. Here is a passage from the scene of Wade’s crazed pursuit of Jack Hewitt through a rugged wintry landscape:
Then, unexpectedly, the ground leveled off, and the trucks were running alongside a shallow beaver pond, with sumac and chokecherry flashing past. At the far end of the pond, the trail swerved left,…too abruptly for Jack to make the turn, and his truck crashed through a stand of skinny birches straight onto the pond, its momentum carrying it swiftly over the surface of the thick ice, its headlights sending huge pale swirls out ahead of it. Wade pulled up at the shore, and he watched Jack’s truck slide across the ice like a leaf on a slow-moving river, until it came to a stop halfway across the pond, facing Wade’s truck, with its headlights gazing back over the snow-covered surface of the glass-smooth ice. Wade dropped his truck into first gear, edged it to the shore, then down onto the ice, and slowly he drove directly into the glare of Jack’s headlights, drawing carefully closer as if toward a fire, until finally the vehicles were face to face, plow blade to plow blade.
For me the most extraordinary scene in the novel occurs when Wade and his undemanding girlfriend, Margie, with whom he hopes to have a new life which will include his daughter, go to his parents’ freezing house. There they find that Wade’s mother has died of hypothermia, huddled in her bed while his father wandered about the house, too drunk and dazed to call someone in to fix the furnace.
Stepping carefully away from the thing [an electric heater], [Wade] crossed to the head of the bed, where he could see the woman clearly. Beneath a mound of blankets and afghans, she wore her wool coat over her flannel nightgown and lay curled on her side like a child, with her tiny hands in mittens fisted near her throat, as if in enraged prayer. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was open slightly. Her skin was chalk white and dry-looking, almost powdery, as if her face would crumble to the touch. Her body resembled a feather-light husk more than an actual human body, and it seemed incapable of holding up the weight of the blankets that covered her to the shoulders and wrists. “Oh, Lord,” Wade whispered. “Oh, Lord.” He came forward and sat down on the floor, cross-legged, like a small boy, facing her.
Like the scrubby, scree-filled landscape in which much of it takes place, Affliction is almost unremittingly grim; the passages of grotesque comedy are shot through with pain. Yet the grimness is redeemed, if only partly relieved, by the sympathetic insight which the author brings to the hapless Wade, so that the reader in turn is made to care for an unlikable man and to believe that others have loved him. Banks’s dour vision is realized intensely and impressively in this novel, and it should strengthen the reputation he earned with Continental Drift.
Just before the publication of Mile Zero, an article in Vanity Fair hailed its author, Thomas Sanchez, as “one of our rare writers who aim at nothing less” than the great novel—in contrast to those young writers who “aspire to become spokesmen for some evanescent generation before they have ever had the opportunity to travel widely or witness a war.” Walt Whitman was evoked in behalf of the author’s willingness to plumb the depths, while one character in the novel is said to loom over the narrative “with the ominous power of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” The first printing of 50,000 copies represents, we are informed, the gamble of the publishing house that Mile Zero “will cross over from the literary market and appeal to a wider audience that savors a well-told tale.”
The extravagant claims for the novel were echoed in some of the reviews that have come out since publication. One such, in The New York Times Book Review, speaks of the “dazzling achievement” of Mile Zero, its “brilliantly contrived plot,” its “devastating irony,” and calls the book “a comic masterpiece crackling with backhanded wit and laugh-out-loud humor.” Surely, the reader may think, nothing will do but to have a look.
The novel’s opening sentences do indeed sound an ambitious, not to say cosmic, chord:
It is about water. It was about water in the beginning, it will be in the end. The ocean mothered us all. Water and darkness awaiting light. Night gives birth. An inkling of life over distant sea swells toward brilliance. Dawn emerges from Africa, strikes light between worlds, over misting mountains of Haiti, beyond the Great Bahama Bank, touching cane fields of Cuba….
Three sensationally incongruous things are happening: a space shuttle has just been launched, a rudderless boat of Haitian refugees is drifting toward Key West, and a radio is blaring an account of a powerboat race off the island. Then the focus narrows to one of the major characters, St. Cloud (he seems to lack a first name), who is in bed with his estranged wife, Evelyn. We learn that Evelyn has a rose tattoed on her breast, that there are more roses tattooed on the breasts of women in Key West than there are real roses “in all the fancy Miami flower shops,” and that the rose tattooes thrive in “a hothouse hum of tropical treachery, a consuming disorientation of desire fertilized by disintegrating ideals, an inescapable rust of the soul.” And we learn, too, that St. Cloud is “swirling helplessly in a sea of self-pity” because Evelyn has “long since melded into dark crevices of female flowered gardens”—i.e., she has become a lesbian.
Hothouse hum and tropical treachery prove apt terms to describe both the sound and the plot of Mile Zero. I will give only the briefest account of the latter. Having lost Evelyn, St. Cloud—an aging veteran of the antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s and now a hopeless drunk—falls in love with a young Southern woman named Lila, who is—or was—the girlfriend of MK, a dangerous cocaine dealer working in Central America. (It is MK who, though he appears only in Lila’s flashback, hovers over the novel like Conrad’s Kurtz.) St. Cloud, who can speak Creole, becomes involved in the fate of a young Haitian, Voltaire, the sole survivor of the boatload of Haitian refugees. Also involved is the island’s good cop, an Afro-Cuban named, significantly, Justo. Decent, brave, and faithful to his loving wife, Rosella, Justo is the character who provides the novel with its moral anchor amid all the tropical treachery.
Sinister things begin to happen. A five-pound South American bufo toad, its belly slit and a nail hammered through its mouth, is placed at the center of an X painted in blood on the tomb of Justo’s grandfather. A goat, with its throat slit, is found hanging upside down from a tower. “There was an evil going around, Justo could smell it.” The evil seems to be connected to an erratic killer who writes notes in rhyming Caribbean dialect and signs himself Zobop. Soon Justo and St. Cloud and the reader are introduced to the rites of Cuban Santería and threatened by the still more awful mysteries of Haitian voodoo. The addition of the drug menace and AIDS serves to thicken the stew.
Mile Zero abounds with colorful island characters, whose histories—and in several cases their ancestors’ histories—are given in detail. We are taken on a tour of the island’s most celebrated sites and allowed to spend long hours with the rum-soaked St. Cloud and his buddies in a bar called the Wreck Room, which is presided over by a promiscuous barmaid with a heart of gold. Perhaps such events and people could have been made entertaining if Mile Zero had been written as a straight—or even comic—thriller. But Elmore Leonard, say, would never have chosen a straight arrow like Justo to guide us through tropical treacheries. Sanchez, in any case, has more exalted ambitions. The characters and their histories and the history of Key West itself are presented with heavy solemnity, and the novel’s major theme—that the happy isle of Bahamian blacks, Cuban cigar makers, sponge gatherers, and the Anglo shrimp fishermen called “Conchs” has been ruined by the greed and environmental recklessness of mainland Americans—is repeated so often and so sonorously as to leave the reader in a state of stunned apathy. Two sections, running to some twenty-one pages, consist entirely of the effusions of Zobop, who presents himself as a kind of Shiva performing a dance of death to purify the island of the iniquities of its North American invaders, whom he addresses:
Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t despair. You can’t. You would rather run over the last Florida panther in cars going nowhere, rather feast your fast-food palate on the last egret egg, anything but look me in the eyes. Behold…I am the Cuban Martyrs. I am the malaria-infected laborer of Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. I am all these things, dead and buried in the island cemetery…I am your teacher. Ya ye, moin nan sang he! Yah, yeh, I am in the blood, hey! And I tell you a screaming deluge [AIDS] is coming out of Africa greater than any howling hurricane.
Could this be a passage from a “comic masterpiece,” as the Times put it?
The characters tend to be thickly described but thinly realized: the intellectual drunkard with a spark faintly burning in his soul, the honest cop scorned by his superiors, the beautiful young woman who is the mistress of a dangerous criminal and yearns to be free, the noble homosexual. Sanchez does not have an ear for the dialogue that can create character: his people speak according to their assigned roles. In the case of Lila, the homegrown Georgia peach, Sanchez commits the Yankee error (from which Southerners have suffered for generations) of assuming that “you-all” (“y’all,” in Lila’s mouth) is used in the South as the second person singular instead of as a collective pronoun. “Y’all are Evelyn’s husband, aren’t y’all?” says Lila to St. Cloud when they first meet.
Finally, there is the sound to be reckoned with. Sanchez is addicted to what I would call magenta, rather than purple, prose, to technicolor effects, not to mention alliteration and odd grammatical constructions. Here are a few examples:
Evelyn turned against the fleshy slide of his body, murmured into the slurping sound of slapping tide…
Even those paintings reproduced in the garish colors of popular magazines possessed the luminescent presence of virile visitation, as if a veil had been swiftly withdrawn from the commonplace, not merely to illuminate or to trick, simply to stab at the heart of unrequited love.
The antiquity of Lila’s beauty emerged not from hot Georgia clay, but from a time before men and women existed, a glimmer in a distant universal sky of what perfection could be if molded of flesh and blood.
No matter how complex or simple one’s life is rigged all bait becomes equal beneath such vast ocean bodies obeying solar gravitational spin and lunar countercurrent force.
The first time they swam in vivid waters along the reef they dove again and again into a world pure with color, touched only by their eyes, the splendor robbed their breath, they could not get enough of it, feasted on the sight of brilliant fish scattering along the purple-hued shelf of coral stepping beyond sight into a cobalt deep.
The structure was honored as one of the town’s grandest and eccentric; most of all, like the island Conch people themselves, it was hailed as a survivor.
“Hailed as a survivor”—apt words, the reader may feel, if he has managed to finish Mile Zero.
December 7, 1989