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A Permanent Member of the Family, by Russell Banks, Clerkenwell Press, RRP£9.99/Ecco, RRP$25.99, 240 pages
Like the novelist Richard Russo, Russell Banks is a classically territorial American writer, whose work has nested in a particular geographical niche. Most of his 17 previous books of fiction are set in the northeast, especially New Hampshire and upstate New York, a beleaguered, relatively poor region whose glories, such as they were, have faded.
In recent years, Banks has divided his time between Keene, NY, and Miami, thereby becoming one of the “snowbirds” referenced in his latest short story collection – that is, Yankees who winter in sunny climes. Part-time residence in the south has broadened his literary terrain to include Florida, the setting of his most recent novel, Lost Memory of Skin (2011), an engrossing book that dares to portray a paedophile with a measure of sympathy. Getting on for half of the stories in the new collection also take place in low-rent Florida, whose seediness makes the state a natural extension of Banks’s down-at-heel northern settings.
A Permanent Member of the Family is a solid collection. Though the 12 short stories are not all memorable, none of them is bad, and two are terrific. In “Big Dog”, a commercially struggling but critically admired artist who builds installations out of plumbing supplies is suddenly awarded a MacArthur fellowship, known colloquially as a “genius grant”. Though sworn to confidentiality by the foundation until the formal announcement of the grant, Erik cannot contain his exuberance. When he and his wife have dinner with four close friends that evening in Saratoga Springs, Erik discloses his good news: half a million dollars, over five years, tax free.
Yet the evening doesn’t go as he had hoped. In a fit of envious vandalism, the youngest of the party, an unpublished writer who has yet to finish a first novel, plays on Erik’s insecurity about whether his work is really deserving of such distinction, until whatever pleasure the artist might have taken in the day’s good tidings is destroyed. Banks vividly illustrates how success can be socially separating, and even depressing.
“Blue” is set in Miami, where a poor middle-aged black woman named Ventana has been eyeing a used-car lot on her way to work for years, putting aside a portion of her salary every week until she has accumulated enough funds to buy her first car in cash. Yet as she walks around the lot, with the money stashed in her bra, Ventana finds that the vehicles in her price range are rusted out and dilapidated. As the salespeople scheme to get their customer to buy a much more expensive car on credit, we assume we’re reading a story about an impoverished mark who will be saddled with a debt she can’t afford by heartless, predatory capitalists.
But no. This is a collection that contains a lot of dogs: a pit bull in this case, a vicious, terrifying animal that chases Ventana on to one of the car roofs. When she calls for help, she discovers that the office has closed, the staff gone home; the lot’s gate is locked. She has been abandoned to the guard dog and, as she cowers on the roof, it begins to get dark. I won’t spoil it, but the ending is great.
Ventana is an exception, for Banks is a profoundly masculine writer and tends to describe men who are disappointed and down on their luck, suggesting that he hasn’t lost touch with his working-class roots. Most of his characters display, if not precisely inner strength, at least cussedness and tenacity. Predictably, given that the author himself has been married four times, most of his male protagonists are divorced – giving rise to observations such as how easily one can confuse “the causes of the breakdown of the marriage with the symptoms of an already broken marriage”. His prose is strong and meaty – high in content, low in pretension – and he’s a dab hand at credible dialogue.
Banks’s previous works have not suffered from neglect. Affliction was made into a decent film with Nick Nolte. The Sweet Hereafter was also adapted to the screen, although that movie was (for me) a disappointment; skip the film and read the book, which teases out the ramifications of a small-town school bus accident in which several children were killed and for which the driver, who also lives in the community, may or may not be to blame. Another novel, The Darling, is apparently on track for film adaptation as well.
Nevertheless, at 73, he has never quite achieved quite the recognition of many of his peers. Considering the number of accomplished novels this literary workhorse has produced, he has been conspicuously overlooked for the big American literary prizes. So as my good deed for the day, allow me to recommend more of his backlist: Hamilton Stark, Continental Drift and Rule of the Bone. Enjoy.
Lionel Shriver is author of ‘Big Brother’ (HarperCollins)