“So much of American violence,” offers Russell Banks in his 2008 non-fiction work Dreaming Up America, “arises because of the conflict between the reality of our lives and the perception of our lives, the way we imagine ourselves.”
Addressing the pervasive cognitive dissonance that drives American military involvement overseas—imperialist interests vs. our self-image as liberators—Banks goes on to say, “that kind of conflict in any human being, in any people, makes for a predictable, explosive violence.”
Elsewhere in that book (essentially a transcript of Banks’s responses from an extended interview he gave on the topic of American history as viewed through the lens of film for director Jean-Michel Meurice’s 2006 French television documentary Amérique, notre histoire), Banks says: “We are in a sense a schizophrenic people. I don’t mean that we have a split identity, but we have a deeply conflicted, self-canceling identity.”
Though Banks never draws such explicit parallels between international and individual conflict in his fiction, the characters who populate his stories grapple with their circumstances within deeper historical currents that exert enormous pressure on their lives … whether they know it or not. Banks’s grasp on the connections between history and pedestrian hardship typically burns off the page with a clarity that has earned glowing praise from luminary social critics like Cornell West, Chris Hedges, and the late Howard Zinn.
Early in life, Banks aspired to become a painter, which partly explains why locale features so prominently in his work. But without his awareness of history, his descriptions would read like postcards … and Banks has never harbored an interest in postcard illustration (though the beauty of his renderings can certainly take one’s breath away).
Like a nature documentarian capturing migration patterns or predation in the wild, the author imbues landscapes with a raw, merciless power that bears down on its inhabitants, leaving little recourse for the helpless. No surprise, then, that setting plays a prominent role all through A Permanent Member of the Family, Banks’ sixth and latest collection of short stories, all written in the year and one-half following completion of his last novel, 2011’s Lost Memory of Skin.
As with previous work, Banks fixes his gaze on Miami/South Florida and the Central/Albany region of New York State. (The author lives half the year in each place.) Once again, he trains his eye on the shadows of desperation that lurk in plain view amidst seemingly idyllic sun-soaked beaches and snow-covered forest communities. And much like the maritime smugglers from his 1985 novel Continental Drift, some of the characters in A Permanent Member of the Family, shaped by the demands geography places on them, display a level of callous opportunism that borders on cannibal behavior.
In the subtle-gesture cues Banks employs to frame their motivations, a trio of used car salespeople, for example, and a bartender show the kind of eat-or-be-eaten instinct that suggests a life of empathic erosion wrought by the accumulated trauma of basic survival. Of course, Banks has built his reputation illustrating the broken mechanisms of human interaction … and, to his credit, refusing to offer easy explanations, solutions, or escapes.
This new set of stories stands out, however, for its overall lack of violence. Sure, several new characters must in one way or another confront mortality, but this time Banks—a product of an abusive household who has spent the better part of his career shining a light on tortured masculinity—makes his most cutting observations about human nature in muted inner monologues and exchanges between characters who, even when they have everything at stake, aren’t strictly preoccupied by matters of life and death.
In “Big Dog,” for instance, a group of friends at a dinner party stare down the cold, sheer face of success as it dawns on one of them that recent acclaim has irreversibly alienated him from everyone he loves. (Having achieved no small measure of prestige himself—NEA and Guggenheim grants, an appointment as the New York State Author, two film adaptations of his novels, teaching at Princeton, etc—perhaps Banks knows all too well.)
In “Snowbirds,” a school guidance counselor travels to Miami Beach to console her newly-widowed friend, only to find that she, not her friend, requires the consolation—and that, after years of acquiescing in her own marriage, she now feels resigned to an unfulfilled life.
The protagonist in “Christmas Party” manages to release himself from lingering emotional bondage simply by picking up an infant and holding it in his arms long enough to make the babysitter nervous. By the time the character orders a beer afterwards, Banks has made it apparent that this person’s life shifts in a new, bright direction.
Even in the book’s most unambiguously tragic situation, a woman confronted by a snarling, deadly pit bull still finds the space to take a broad view on the larger tragedies afflicting her neighborhood through the generations: “She’s seen many examples of the breed in the neighborhood walking with that characteristic bow-legged, chesty strut, in the company of young men wearing baggy pants halfway down their underwear, tight muscle shirts and baseball caps on backward, boys who are barely men and resemble their dogs the way people say dogs and their owners and husbands and wives come to resemble each other. She knows some of those young men personally, has known them since they were little boys. Inside they’re not hard and dangerous; they’re soft and scared. That’s why they need to walk the streets with a hard, dangerous-looking dog yanking on a chain-link leash.”
Though he narrates her story in the third person, Banks clearly intends to come across from the woman’s perspective, a skill honed to such great effect that one barely notices. Conversely, though, Banks breaks the effortless flow of his prose when his characters speak out loud to other characters as a way of telling a reader what their author wants us to understand about their inner life—the literary equivalent of a movie director adding voice-over narration to provide expository background after failing to capture it in the movement of the film itself.
Far too often for a writer who performs at such a consistently high level of literary precision, Banks has his characters tell us what’s on their mind, as if they doubled as their own therapists. They possess a degree of self-awareness rarely found in real-life, day-to-day interaction. Clearly, Banks himself possesses acute powers of observation, along with the empathy to give those observations (sometimes crushing) weight. But he sometimes forgets how rarely people demonstrate conscious understanding of the motives that propel them … and, all too often, destroy them in the process. Lapses into this tendency subvert the stark realism of scenes scripted with otherwise startling accuracy.
In “The Green Door,” a bartender who narrates from his own first-person point of view considers another character: “I can tell he’s not at all sure of what he wants. He’s probably not even sure of what he wants at home in bed with his wife and waits instead for her to tell him what she wants, then does his manly best to give it to her. Which is why tonight he’s wandering down the darkened alleys of his mind to the Green Door. He’s spent too many years postponing desire, cultivating fantasies and turning himself into a sexual window-shopper to know what he really wants. Like me, maybe. Only with me it’s about life in general and not just sex. Could be that’s why the guy both attracts and repels me.”
All this sounds perfectly convincing … until the narrator turns to look at himself.
Likewise, in “Searching for Veronica,” a woman at an airport bar tells a story within a story to a narrator named Russell. The woman explains to Russell that junkies “live in their own private story,” and that as such one can never believe what they say. As she reaches the end of her tale, both Russells—author and narrator alike—contest the woman’s account and suggest that the Veronica in her story has displaced her own daughter, and possibly the woman herself.
By naming his narrator after Russell, Banks makes it obvious that he intended “Searching for Veronica” to function as a kind of meta-narrative on the intersections between authorship, creativity, memory and identity. But without committing himself to dive fully into the abstract, shifting-narrator style favored by, say, Ariel Dorman, Banks just ends up confusing a reader and throwing a conceptual monkey wrench into what, first and foremost, reads as an engrossing story. For an author who can articulate human struggle with such sweeping grace, “Searching for Veronica” ends with an academic trick shot.
Still, even in the new pieces that resemble still-life images—some entries in Permanent Member contain little to no plot movement—Banks can hold a reader in a powerful, page-turning grip. He builds tension and foreboding even in places where nothing explosive (or even especially decisive) occurs.
He also paints lifelike characters vividly enough to cause genuine heartbreak when things don’t go well for them. He makes it look easy too, sometimes with minimal brush strokes, in general exercising far greater word economy than in his novels by hovering on certain details that would dissolve quickly in the action of longer material.
Banks showed his storytelling acumen at the outset of his career and has demonstrably sharpened it in the 12 novels and five short story collections that precede this one. Unsurprisingly, A Permanent Member of the Family benefits from the continued maturation of his skills … but the new collection also shows him applying his abilities in more understated ways—an encouraging development in the career arc of a veteran author about to close-in on three decades of ambitious output.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni writes about books and music for Paste, Alarm, MTV Iggy and Nashville Scene. He hosts the Page By Page interview podcast series for the Rochester, NY literary center Writers & Books. He interviewed Russell Banks in January for the first installment in the series, now streaming on the Writers & Books site. He also hosts Feedback Deficiency, an eclectic weekly online radio show, and makes original music, sometimes out of found sounds and kitchenware.