A Permanent Member of the Family

  • By Russell Banks
  • Ecco
  • 240 pp.

The author's latest story collection lacks the power of his fearless, well-crafted novels.

A Permanent Member of the Family

Read our interview with author Russell Banks

Most readers know Russell Banks best as a writer of novels, 12 to date, whose characters struggle with poverty, alcoholism, family violence and cultural isolation. He is less well known for his stories. In his new collection, his sixth, readers who have admired The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, Rule of the Bone or Lost Memory of Skin, to name my favorites among the novels, will find glimpses of familiar themes, but little of the tension, passion and bursts of powerful writing that make the longer works memorable.

The collection opens with the story of Connie, an ex-Marine, now in his 70s, who shares the profile of many Banks protagonists: male, divorced with children, living in a trailer in rural New England, on the verge of poverty. Untypically, it’s Connie’s wifewho abandoned the family, not him. Connie has raised his three sons, caring for them “with discipline and devotion,” as befits a former Marine. Now, having lost his job in the economic downturn, he is unable to care for himself, a fact that shames him. He deals with his situation by robbing banks. When his sons, all law enforcement officers, find out what Connie has done, they are suitably, if stoically, appalled. “‘Dad, what the hell do you want us to do?’” one of them asks.“‘What’s the right thing here, Dad?’” The question pleases Connie because it‘s one a Marine would ask. At the end of the story he gives his answer.

“Former Marine” is like many of the stories in that it reads like a moral fable, raising questions about what is right, or what is true. A woman in an airport tells the narrator about her drug addict friend who has disappeared, as the narrator gradually deduces that her story is really about her lost daughter, or perhaps about the woman herself — or about all three. What is “real” here? Another story poses a similar question when two vagrants murder a racist white preacher while the narrator watches. How complicit is the onlooker? In “Blue,” a story I found almost unbearable to read, an African American woman buying her first car is trapped inside the car lot overnight with a ferocious guard dog she calls Blue. The terrible ending presumably reflects Banks’ dark view of racial justice in this country but it seems imposed on the story rather than the inevitable outcome of what has preceded it. Often I felt that Banks’ moral and political agendas interfered with the fictional experience of characters’ lives unfolding, from which I could draw my own conclusions.

One story that approaches the richness that modern short fiction can achieve is “Christmas Party.” Harold Bilodeau’s wife has left him for a local builder. While she and her new husband have built a new house and adopted a baby from Ethiopia, Harold, a taciturn excavator, continues to live in the trailer they shared, morosely trying to put his life back together. “Sheila was the past that wouldn’t stop bleeding into his present.” When Sheila and her new husband invite him to their Christmas party, he reluctantly accepts. Uncomfortable at the party, he wanders away and stumbles on the baby’s room. He enters and after observing the child for a while, takes him into his arms. The wordless moment that ensues is moving because the story has shown us enough about Harold for us to imagine what we are not told.

The other stories are more truncated and less successful. Characters act out their roles without the narrative compression, telling details and lively, supple prose that can make the short form appealing. Some of the stories are so slight as to leave barely any impression. A rootless retired couple living in an RV grieves the death of their dog until the man buries it on an unfamiliar beach; a man recovering from a heart transplant grants the widow of the heart donor an unsettling favor; a man runs into a woman he slept with once, only to find he no longer feels anything for her. The title story, about the narrator’s dog that follows his children between their divorced parents’ houses and becomes “a permanent member of the family,” has the feel of a family anecdote.

Banks’s stolid, straightforward prose works well in constructing a novel, where a slow, careful accretion of events leads to a gripping conclusion, but in the stories it comes across as bland or banal. Banks has written, in the Introduction to his last collection, Angel on the Roof (2000):”[T]he story form … invites me … to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, and more broadly comic than is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance, and compromise.” For readers, the stories may provide a new appreciation of his fearless and well-crafted novels.

Kate Blackwell is the author of the story collection You Won’t Remember This (Southern Methodist University Press, 2007). Her stories have appeared in the Agni Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, the Greensboro Review, the Literary Review, among others, and in several anthologies. Story awards include the Larry Neal Fiction Prize awarded by the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

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