Russell Banks, RIP

The U.S. has lost its leading storyteller of blue-collar despair

Novelist Russell Banks photographed by Jill Krementz on April 21, 1995, at Princeton University, where he taught Creative Writing.

The death of novelist and short story writer Russell Banks over the weekend has deprived blue-collar America of one of its most respected chroniclers. No one has empathized more with ordinary men, women, and children or with the marginalized and dispossessed, or presented the reality they inhabit with more painful verisimilitude. While he did not necessarily blame others for the ills of the denizens of trailer parks and sleazy motels, and could be cruel in his depictions of their lethargy and enslavement to false idols, Banks found their struggles and plights far more compelling than those of the pampered suburbanites who inhabit the leafy avenues of John Updike and John Cheever or the Manhattanites feted by Jay McInerney. Again and again, Banks held out the intimation of a better world to his characters and then, subtly or with brutal clarity, asked whether they had the smarts and character to break out of their statis.

Part of the problem for many of Banks’s New Hampshirites is the skewed relationship between the cities so vital to the life of the nation and her role in the world, and the hinterland whose people keep getting belittled as rednecks and deplorables by those who profess to be on the side of the faceless and voiceless. If you live in a trailer park in the wilds of New Hampshire, you had better accept what the coastal elites give you to watch and read and consume, like a farm animal lapping at a trough. You exist to maintain the service economy for the rich from the cities who come north to ski and pass the warm months at their summer homes, and you must not aspire to a live worth living on its own terms.

Nowhere did Banks develop this theme more powerfully than in his 1981 short story collection Trailerpark. Here he anticipated a few of the concerns of writers and auteurs of cinema who flourished in the 1990s and beyond.

Novelist Russell Banks standing at the door of his office in this hauntingly beautiful photograph by Jill Krementz, taken on April 21, 1995, at Princeton University.

No one ever makes this connection, but the famous scene in Pulp Fiction where Jules and Vincent arrive at an apartment to settle scores with some hapless kids who tried to screw over their boss is virtually a replay of Banks’s story “Dis Bwoy, Him Gwan.” In this tale, a pair of hitmen from Boston, one white and one Jamaican, show up at the eponymous trailer park to confront a kid who had started out dealing drugs they provided and then let his ego get the better of him. He tried to introduce his own supply chain into the business, marketing hemp grown in the woods near his home, but the gangsters in Boston did not like his muscling in or his presumption that he had the chops to be a supplier rather than just a punk dealing on the street. Things don’t turn out well.

This story is eerily similar to Tarantino’s scene, right down to the racial makeup of the quartet of people present at its climax. Of course, the scenario is too general to be anyone’s intellectual property. The point here is simply that Banks tapped into currents in the seedy underside of American life that exert a morbid and perennial fascination. You can read “Dis Bwoy, Him Gwan” on just a literal level as the tale of a kid who wanted a piece of the drug action and got in way over his head, but there are nuances to the dialogue and plot that point up the lopsided relationship between city and country and how one partner, never the other, is to call the shots. Behind the action of the story is a macroeconomic dispensation that keeps the rural working class in thrall.

Pawns and Peons

In “What Noni Hubner Did Not Tell the Police About Jesus,” a depressed substance abuser finds in religion that proverbial opiate with which to escape the thoughts of her lack of education and imagination that keep creeping up at odd moments of the day. Her mother will not accept the fact of her father’s death, and her own need for a surrogate father grows into the most odious addiction of all. It is so severe that her sense of reality falls away and a strange man calling her on the phone or showing up at the trailer park serves for all intents and purposes as Christ reborn. In this story, the need for an idol to believe in is pitiful, pathological, and deprives Noni of the ability to experience, even briefly and allusively as other Banks characters do, the possibility of an existence grounded in a realistic sense of her own needs and how to be more than a rat running forever on the treadmill of her dead-end milieu.

Russell BanksThe tragedy of these people’s lives is that things do not have to be this way, but it is so much easier to go along with the deal they have got. Your neighbors and co-workers expect you to be like them. They frown on difference and idiosyncrasy, and their racial intolerance is one of their ugliest traits, as Banks reveals in “Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat.” On a hot day, a young black man takes his white girlfriend out for a boat ride on the lake abutting the trailer park where she lives with her mother, who has never accepted a boyfriend not of the same race. The talk of bait and fishing gives way to a frank discussion of their situation and the woman’s acknowledgment that she will be going to see an abortionist that very afternoon. After this admission of her subservience to the standards and expectations of the trailer park, and the small minds that fill it, the story ends with the rowboat returning to shore in silence.

The brief and subtle “Dark Green Rowboat” holds an interpretive key to much of Banks’s work. The lake is the theoretical space his characters briefly and obliquely enter, sometimes without any conscious awareness that this is what they done, where it is possible, however fleetingly, to gain a bit of distance and critical perspective on the life they live and the community they inhabit. Banks asks what they will do with this perspective and whether they can summon the resolve to act on the knowledge, however dim, that things do not have to go on the same way forever, that someone who can act with the resolve and moral courage that Dostoyevsky evoked in House of the Dead could give a middle finger to the trailer park, flaunt its rules, defy its ways, stand things on their head.

Sadly they will not or cannot, at least not until tragedy has erupted and redemption is not possible for anyone.

The Afflicted

A quintessential figure in the Banks universe is Wade Whitehouse, the protagonist of his 1989 novel Affliction, which many will remember as his finest. Wade lives and works in the fictional town of Catamount, New Hampshire, ruing his divorce and his wretched relationship with a daughter he barely knows how to talk to or care for. His romantic and sexual frustrations, suspicion of others in the town, loathing of his beastly father, and resentment toward a young man, Jack Hewitt, who is one of the few people who seem genuinely to prosper in this milieu, build and build until awful events that the reader will have seen coming unfold.

Novelist Russell Banks photographed by Jill Krementz on April 21, 1995, at Princeton University, hence the tiger.

You know where things are headed, for Affliction begins, “This is the story of my brother’s criminal behavior and his strange disappearance.” The narrator is Rolfe, who lives in a Boston suburb and is everything Wade is not: handsome, intellectual, kind to others, successful in his career. Rolfe speaks for Banks, who knew all too well what kind of life he would have had if he had not made it out of Barnstead, New Hampshire, to travel, attend colleges, and become a writer.

Wade’s decision to leave is not, objectively speaking, strange. Nor was it the only defensible choice for a Catamount resident. It could have been a wise decision if he had made it a bit earlier, much like certain of his friends who went off to live in Florida or the Pacific Northwest. But he circumstances of his flight, which make him a fugitive rather than a transplant, are where the bizarrerie comes in here. How much better it would have been if he had grappled with his demons and avoided ever going postal.

Banks is not so reductionist as to suggest that people unhappy in their town or trailer park should just get up and leave and all will be well. Continental Drift is yet another Banks novel about a sad New Hampshirite, Bob DuBois, who does elect to flee the granite state when his life there becomes unbearable, but before he can commit life-altering mistakes like those that Wade makes. But his story, too, has a tragic arc. This 1985 work is an eloquent acknowledgment that if you get up and walk out on your life and go and live somewhere else, your problems will not stay in the place you fled. They’ll follow you to your grave if you don’t deal with them.

We should not read Banks’s work as an incitement to get up and leave your depressed town and everything in it behind, or as an endorsement of such a simple-minded solution, but rather as an appeal to look inward and explore the possibility for personal, professional, and spiritual change that might avoid tragedy and obviate the need for flight.

Novelist Russell Banks and his American tabby named Bodo photographed by Jill Krementz on April 21, 1995, at his office at Princeton University. The portrait on his wall depicts the abolitionist John Brown.

 You May Also Like

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *