Banks’ un­pre­dictable sto­ries dark, mem­o­rable

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gene Walz

THE ti­tle of this new col­lec­tion, A Per­ma­nent Mem­ber of the Fam­ily, seems to in­di­cate that it con­tains pos­i­tive sto­ries of warmth, to­geth­er­ness and tra­di­tional western val­ues. Don’t be fooled. Rus­sell Banks is a great Amer­i­can writer, but he’s not a warm and fuzzy writer. His fam­i­lies are frac­tured, his char­ac­ters are fret­fully alone and they’re not suc­cess­ful in their of­ten mea­gre en­deav­ours. Banks has writ­ten 12 nov­els, two of which ( Con­ti­nen­tal Drift and Cloud Split­ter) were fi­nal­ists for the Pulitzer Prize in lit­er­a­ture. Two oth­ers ( The Sweet Here­after and Af­flic­tion) were adapted into award-win­ning movies. His most re­cent novel, Lost Mem­ory of Skin, was on more than a dozen note­wor­thy crit­ics’ lists of the best books of 2011. His short sto­ries are held in equally high re­gard, es­pe­cially his pre­vi­ous col­lec­tion, The An­gel on the Roof (2000), which he se­lected from works done over his 30-year ca­reer. This new col­lec­tion (six of the 12 sto­ries are pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished) is dis­tin­guished by a great va­ri­ety of sub­jects, char­ac­ters, lo­cales and points of view.

The ti­tle story, for in­stance, is told in the first per­son by a di­vorced fa­ther who wants to re­claim a story told at his ex­pense for 35 years. When he and his wife sep­a­rated, she got cus­tody of their four daugh­ters and the fam­ily dog. To his dis­may, he got the cat. But when the girls come to his house on vis­i­ta­tions, the dog fol­lows and won’t go back to his wife’s res­i­dence. What hap­pens on one of those vis­its is the crux of the plot. The end­ing makes you won­der whether he has in fact re­claimed his orig­i­nal story. Or whether he ever can. This is a clever twist on the un­re­li­able­nar­ra­tor gam­bit that mod­ernist writ­ers like to play. The sto­ry­teller is not so much un­re­li­able, how­ever, as de­luded. The most per­sonal story in the col­lec­tion, Big Dog, con­cerns an in­stal­la­tion artist who wins a so-called “ge­nius grant” worth “a wheel­bar­row of money” from the MacArthur Foun­da­tion. Al­though he’s sup­posed to keep the prize con­fi­den­tial, like King Mi­das, he tells four of his friends at a Christ­mas party. Ini­tially happy for him and con­grat­u­la­tory, the friends change through the course of the evening. Each one of them would be worth his or her own story. At times you won­der whether one or another of them will be­come the main fo­cus. That hap­pens reg­u­larly in this col­lec­tion. As a win­ner of many pres­ti­gious awards, Banks is likely writ­ing from his own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and feel­ings. Not un­ex­pect­edly, he’s am­biva­lent about awards. Other mem­o­rable sto­ries (told in the third per­son) are about an ex-ma­rine with three sons in law en­force­ment who has to re­sort to rob­bing banks to make ends meet; a heart-trans­plant sur­vivor who is re­luc­tant to meet the girl­friend of his donor; a woman who gets locked in­side a used car lot with a vi­cious dog; and guy stuck in an air­port lis­ten­ing to an im­prob­a­ble story by a sus­pi­cious woman. From th­ese sto­ries and oth­ers in this col­lec­tion, it’s clear that Banks has great com­pas­sion for his char­ac­ters and prefers to dole out in­for­ma­tion about them strate­gi­cally. He also likes to play with au­di­ence ex­pec­ta­tions and to leave read­ers sur­prised by or won­der­ing about the con­clu­sions of the sto­ries. His end­ings are sud­den, ten­ta­tive, an­ti­cli­mac­tic, ironic and cu­ri­ous. Be­cause he is such a gifted writer, it’s al­most al­ways a plea­sure get­ting to the ends and rarely dis­ap­point­ing once you’re there. Banks has al­ways been con­scious about his place in literary tra­di­tion. He stud­ies and learns from his pre­de­ces­sors and com­peti­tors — Hem­ing­way, Cheever, Carver and Dubus, for in­stance. He’s cer­tainly in that league. A Per­ma­nent Mem­ber of the Fam­ily may not be prize-wor­thy. But its best sto­ries will likely tempt you to turn to his pre­vi­ous col­lec­tion and his riv­et­ing nov­els. Gene Walz is a re­tired pro­fes­sor of film stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Manitoba.

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