A slice of life that leaves you hun­gry for more

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott

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

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