A slice of life that leaves you hungry for more
A Permanent Member of the Family
By Russell Banks Profile Books, 228pp, $22.95 WHAT can a reader hope for in a new book from Russell Banks, the 22nd he has published since 1969 (and the sixth collection of stories)? The American writer is a master of what is too diminutively termed the slice-of-life story, the point of which is to present brief views of long lives. Raymond Carver is perhaps the most famous practitioner.
The slice-of-life genre has fallen out of vogue, perhaps because it has been institutionalised: it is certainly the standard form taught in most undergraduate creative writing courses, in Australia and elsewhere.
As such, A Permanent Member of the Family presents a solid case for why the parameters of this genre became attractive in the first place. For some writers, consistency can become a liability because familiarity can mean diminished returns. But while this book never quite feels like a surprise, it is addictive, powerful and as good as anything Banks has done.
Here, the “slice-of-life” components are just powerful stylistic choices — one can appreciate their effects on their own terms.
The best story, Blue, is about a woman named Ventana who’s carefully saved “thirtyfive one-hundred-dollar bills” and plans to buy a used car. She visits the lot she has walked past every day for a long time, trying not to show how hard she’s looking. The salespeople aren’t fooled; even the ones she has pegged as friendly are weighing up how far they can push her, trying to squeeze her for all she’s worth: “Get her into the blue Beemer,” one says.
The stakes, therefore, are brilliantly established: we want the poor woman to be happy, we know what this is worth to her, and we know who her opponents are. But the story doesn’t so much sharply turn as casually — and horrifically — drift into a whole new territory, where the stakes are much worse.
Forgotten by the salespeople, Ventana is accidentally locked into the lot with a vicious guard dog overnight. From here, her ordeal is excruciatingly lengthy, as a cute boy from the street tries to help her, a news crew is called, she’s left alone again and decides to help herself with the grisliest consequences imaginable.
The story’s turns come so naturally that you only parse them in retrospect: terrific, subtle acrobatics that make you want to stand and cheer, even while your heart’s in your throat.
The main business of A Mile Down begins with Vann’s apparently innocuous declaration that “I was building my boat in Turkey’’. He had taught creative writing at Stanford without securing a tenure track. His literary agent could find no one interested in publishing Legend of a Suicide (it finally appeared in 2009). Deeply indebted and dependent on his lenders (an altruistic bunch whose good natures he sorely tested), Vann is trying to sell one boat to fund the building of another that will eventually take to the seas as The Wife of Bath.
This is Vann’s account of the career he wants to pursue: “I had started an educational charter business, earning a captain’s licence and teaching creative writing workshops aboard a sailboat.’’ While he muses contentedly that ‘‘I was in a foreign land, with all that is rich and good about that’’, he is too trusting of the Turkish boat builder, Seref, a master of bad faith, but not of ensuring that the rudder stays attached to the ship.
Once at sea, Vann gives us travelogue. He is best at places that most discomfort him, such as Gibraltar, and the disheartening rapacity of those who cling to the rock. About places he ad- It’s hard to remember the last time I cared so much about any character.
Part of the reason there’s such a palpable sense of danger for Ventana is the collection’s careful sequencing. In the first story, Former Marine — another gem — an old man who has raised three good sons to work in law enforcement finds himself having put the family in a moral bind, blurring two of the central tenets of his existence: “You’re never an ex-father, any more than you’re an ex-Marine.” The kids are named, wonderfully, Jack, Chip and Buzz, and the set-up is almost absurd, which only clinches the hard twist at the end.
After this story, in which the worst does happen, it’s easy for the next 11 stories to exploit this expectation: in Christmas Party, a cuckolded husband who strays from the crowd to cradle his ex-wife’s new child might just walk right out the door with it.
The stories aren’t all hits, but the best ones build on complex sympathies established by one another. It’s a good book to read in order.
If there’s a unifying factor, apart from Banks’s clear, unfussy prose, it’s that no matter how far he burrows into his characters, how deeply he worries the idea of what a character thinks he or she is, there’s always something huge and hurt and human underneath.
For that reason, this is sometimes a sad book, but it’s never bleak. Banks’s stories always connect — that’s never in question — but the best ones also chomp down and dig in.
Ronnie Scott is a critic for ABC Radio National. mires, Vann often writes blandly. Malta is an ‘‘enchanted island’’, Tobago ‘‘a tropical paradise’’. No doubt visits to each a relief after his travails elsewhere: abandoning ship only to be towed by a sly German captain seeking salvage money, sailing through the Pillars of Hercules to “hit large standing waves, almost twenty feet high’’, going bankrupt and being threatened with charges of embezzlement.
Even a change of the boat’s name (usually thought unlucky) to Bird of Paradise does not help. Vann’s optimism at every reverse is almost crazily maintained. His first title for the memoir was The Aftermath of Ruin, “about how everything had worked out after it had seemed all was lost. A story of the American Dream.’’ Having recklessly given these hostages to fortune, Vann suffers the destruction of more than a dream but, this being an American story, dreams can always be renewed or reinvented. Vann turned catastrophe into good fortune and has given us this strange, hectically paced book, and the assured, taxing fiction that has followed. Peter Pierce edited the Cambridge History of Australian Literature.
March 22-23, 2014