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 leap into period romance, complete with biplanes, cocktails, and brisk, brittle dialogue straight out of The Thin Man or, as one character finds himself hoping, “Ernest Hemingway’s stories.”
Banks has always written with unshowy frankness about the plain animal comforts of sex, the companionable mingling of bodies rendered unbeautiful by age and hard work and the booze and junk food that bring fleeting consolation. In The Reserve, the encounters have a decidedly glossier sheen. The time is 1936, and the place is the Tamarack Wilderness Reserve, forty thousand acres of pristine Adirondack forests, peaks, and streams where the kind of “leisure-class Republicans” who name their private libraries “the Beinecke” and murmur “interesting” when conversation starts to bore them can go to “coddle their dream of living in a world in which they do no harm.”
Internal combustion engines are forbidden in the reserve, but that doesn’t stop Jordan Groves, a successful artist, committed socialist, and self-described “man of action” (modeled loosely on the painter and illustrator Rockwell Kent), from landing his 1932 Waco seaplane near Dr. Carter Cole’s sprawling lakeside “camp.” Jordan has come to inspect a rival’s paintings, but the real object on display is Cole’s daughter Vanessa, a famously unstable beauty recently divorced from a German count and rumored to have dallied with Max Ernst, Baron von Blixen, and Papa himself. (A year with a Swiss psychoanalyst and an unpublished Surrealist novel round out her résumé.) Vanessa is one of Nick Carraway’s careless people: fragile but dangerous in her detachment. Watching Jordan’s seaplane narrowly miss smashing into a mountain, she starts to grow excited, “for she had never seen anyone kill himself and realized that in some small way she’d always wanted to.”
Jordan, like the real Rockwell Kent, has donated works to the Soviet people and argues with his friend John Dos Passos over whether to get involved in “this Spanish thing.” When he first spies Vanessa posing by the shore in the gloaming, he declares to himself: “Come the revolution, no more socialites.” But soon his artist’s eye, among other senses, takes over. “A damned beautiful animal,” he tells himself. “But a woman to watch is all. Not to touch. Maybe to paint is all.” He takes her for a spin in his seaplane, cheekily abandoning her on the other side of the lake to bushwhack home on her own. As a result, she misses the fatal heart attack of her father, a “controversial” brain surgeon—he is reputed to be the inventor of the lobotomy—who may or may not have taken obscene photos of her when she was a little girl, which may or may not explain why she may or may not be perilously out of touch with reality and a candidate for one of those lobotomies herself. Later, when Jordan sees Vanessa outside the Tamarack clubhouse after the funeral, her beauty has taken on a nearly demonic, and certainly melodramatic, force:
He did not think that he had ever seen a woman with a visible field of light surrounding her like that, a gleaming halo wrapped around her entire body.
The revolution can wait, and forget about painting: this is a woman to touch.
But not until after a few more turns of the carefully constructed if implausibly overstuffed plot, involving a scheme to send Vanessa back to that Swiss psychiatrist, a kidnapping, a fatal gun accident, and Jordan’s wife Alicia’s confession of her own sexual betrayal with Hubert St. Germain, the Cole family’s trusted local guide. To Vanessa, Hubert is
efficient and attractively designed, like one of those fine Adirondack guide boats he built and handled more expertly than any but the old legendary guides from her grandfather’s day.
To Alicia, though she admires his calloused hands and knowledge of the local flora and fauna, Hubert is mainly an instrument of revenge for Jordan’s dalliances with Spanish dancers and Inuit women, chronicled in his best-selling travel memoirs, complete with earthy woodcuts. Against the blocky outlines of class conflict, Banks crafts a more finely drawn if not wholly convincing portrait of domestic struggle, one that recapitulates some of his perennial themes: family estrangement, the corrosive power of secrets, and the emotional fallout from the planned obsolescence of the working-class American male.
“Altars to nature. Not nature itself” is Jordan’s dismissive judgment of a rival painter’s work. For him,
history and politics and economics were all parts of nature. Sex, work, play: it didn’t matter. To him, human beings were no less a part of the natural world than the mountains and lakes and skies that enveloped them.
So, too, for Banks, who has always written exquisitely about the emptied-out landscapes of the upper Northeast without banishing the dented trucks and rusting graders and rickety, charmless houses beyond the reach of tasteful renovations. Even when he’s writing about small lives in small towns, Banks’s vision has an unembarrassed largeness, so that it does not seem entirely forced to cite glacial deposits and the arrival of prehistoric hunters as part of the relevant background to, say, the mysterious disappearance of the burned-out part-time police officer Wade Whitehouse in Affliction, or to invoke plate tectonics as a metaphor for the self-destruction of Bob Dubois in Continental Drift.
Banks’s novels have long combined a stony fatalism about human nature with a hot sense of injustice and an old-fashioned belief in the transformative power of literature. “Knowledge of the facts of Bob’s life and death changes nothing in the world,” Banks writes in the “Envoi” that concludes Continental Drift.
Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives—no, especially wholly invented lies—deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself…. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.
Twenty years later, that world endures. But The Reserve suggests a revision of Banks’s ideas about the revolutionary possibilities of art, or at least about the artist’s ability to truly stand with the downtrodden. In an afterword to the advance reviewers’ galley explaining the various strands of his inspiration (not just Kent’s biography, but also a real-life Adirondack murder mystery, Hemingway’s supposed affair with an industrialist’s unstable wife, even a sighting of the Hindenburg over Lake Champlain in the summer of 1936), Banks says that he wanted to explore
the moral and political implications of the inherent conflict between an artist’s radical politics on the one hand and his social and financial alliance with the very class his politics attacks.
In the end, however, the novel really only succeeds in bringing up the subject. When Alicia chides Jordan for his casual dismissal of the Coles and their overclass set as “people like that”—
They collect art, Jordan. They have nice big houses and apartments. They think artists are interesting, superior people. And you like all that, you know. And there’s no reason you shouldn’t like it, is there?
—the novel never bothers to muster much of a rejoinder.
The relationship between the artist and the upper class is reduced to the sexual one between Jordan and Vanessa, which feels more like an overengineered clash of titans than a real encounter. Class analysis becomes little more than a salve for sexual insecurity. Brooding over Alicia’s betrayal with Hubert, Jordan soothes himself with thoughts of
the old perennial sexual attraction of the bourgeois woman for the proletarian male,…an attractiveness that Jordan Groves, no matter how radical his politics, was unable to generate for himself, except among aristocratic women.
His own politics come to seem to represent less a clear-sighted radical commitment than a futile longing to be “the famous artist Jordan Groves and yet also be one of them”—a member of the laboring class whose “powerlessness signified an innocence he had abandoned long ago” when he refused to become a carpenter like his own father.
For all the care of its construction and clear beauty of its descriptive prose, The Reserve has a curiously cold-blooded and stagy quality, as if it were worked up from its multiple historical sources and abstract themes rather than allowed to grow from the exfoliating revelations of character. For all the stomach-knotting suspense and driving narrative energy of Banks’s best books, they succeed mostly in their unerring grasp of protagonists who refuse to be pinned down by sociological cliché or to keep their inner lives within the stark outlines of their actual situation. We know roughly how Bob Dubois’s fantasy of escape, in Continental Drift, will end. And we know that Wade Whitehouse, the increasingly unhinged part-time police officer in Affliction, will not win back custody of his daughter and settle into wholesome domesticity in the dilapidated farmhouse where his terrifying father, lost in the depths of Canadian Club, has just allowed Wade’s mother to freeze to death in her bed. But even as Bob and Wade destroy themselves, their dreams retain a vivid, ghostly life. Their fates are both emblematic and irrevocably their own.
By contrast, when Banks flashes forward to show us Jordan’s Polikarpov fighter go down over Spain, where he tries to paper over his marital humiliation with a dose of manly action, it feels like the fall of a paper airplane. Stolid, admirable Hubert may lack the finely delineated inner life that gives Bob Dubois and Wade Whitehouse the strength to bear up under Banks’s more didactic tendencies (Alicia’s eventual verdict—“dull and unimaginative and provincial”—is pretty much on the mark), but his gradual dispossession and extinction is part of a vast historical wrong that the novel seems to have felt deeper in its bones than the destruction of the Spanish Republic.
“In two generations,” Banks writes, between the arrival of the first Adirondack tourists in the 1880s and the consolidation of huge tracts of once-productive farmland and hunting grounds as playgrounds for the rich (many of which remain intact today), “a class of independent yeomen and yeowomen had been turned into a servant class, with all the accompanying dependencies, resentments, insecurity, and envy.” Jordan may die a hero’s death in Spain, but it’s Hubert who comes to seem historical, to turn from wood into stone. At the end of the novel, Banks envisions the dignified Adirondack guide slipping into legend, to be spoken of later as “one of those twentieth-century men who resembled in every way the first Europeans to enter this vast, unsettled forest,” and not as merely the father to all those alcoholic snowplow drivers, hopped-up teenage delinquents, and failed baseball prospects turned part-time hunting guides who end up getting shot in the woods in Russell Banks novels.
Early in The Reserve, Jordan is flying his plane over Lake Champlain when he sees an enormous object on the horizon. It’s the Hindenburg, “the largest machine in the world.”
Its very scale was beautiful to Jordan, like a Greenland glacier seen for the first time—a thing too big for human beings to imagine, but, for all that, a natural and perfected part of the world that humans inhabit.
In his afterword, Banks calls it “a ‘reserve’ of another kind, a ghostly metaphor that, as my story unfolded, developed increasing resonance and meaning.” While the silvery whale provokes one of Banks’s most strikingly beautiful passages, its significance remains puzzling. Is it a symbol of the history about to consume the antlike figures below, or of the idea of a transcendent realm outside that history? Ultimately, the dirigible floats too far off this disappointing novel’s cluttered horizon, much like the deeper meanings its author is reaching for but cannot quite grasp.
March 20, 2008