Banks, Russell 1940–
Banks, Russell 1940–
(Russell Earl Banks)
PERSONAL: Born March 28, 1940, Newton, MA; son of Earl and Florence Banks; married Darlene Bennett, June, 1960 (divorced, February, 1962); married Mary Gunst (a poet), October 29, 1962 (marriage ended, 1977); married Kathy Walton (an editor), 1982 (divorced, 1988); married Chase Twitchell (a poet), 1989; children: Leona Stamm, Caerthan, Maia, Danis (all daughters). Education: Attended Colgate University, 1958; University of North Carolina, A.B., 1967.
ADDRESSES: Home—Princeton, NJ. Agent—Ellen Levine Literary Agency, Suite 1801, 15 East 26th St., New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Writer, 1975–. Mannequin dresser, Montgomery Ward, Lakeland, FL, 1960–61; plumber in New Hampshire, 1962–64; Lillabulero Press, Inc., Chapel Hill, NC, publisher and editor; Northwood Narrows, NH, publisher and editor, 1966–75; instructor at Emerson College, Boston, MA, 1968, 1971, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1968–75, New England College, Henniker, NH, 1975, 1977–82, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 1981–. Has also taught at New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Columbia University. Played the role of Dr. Robeson in the film version of The Sweet Hereafter (see below).
AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; St. Lawrence Award for Fiction, St. Lawrence University and Fiction International, 1975; NEA Fellowships, 1977, 1983; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1982, for The Book of Jamaica; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for work of distinction, 1986; John Dos Passos Award, 1986; Fels Award; O. Henry Memorial Award; Ingram Merrill Award; Best American Short Story Award; Pulitzer Prize finalist, 1986, for Continental Drift, and 1998, for Cloudsplitter.
(With William Matthews and Newton Smith) 15 Poems, Lillabulero Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1967.
30/6, Quest (New York, NY), 1969.
Waiting to Freeze, Lillabulero Press (Northwood Narrows, NH), 1969.
Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter, Granite Press (Hanover, NH), 1974.
Searching for Survivors, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1975.
The New World, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1978.
Trailerpark, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1981, new edition, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Success Stories, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1986.
The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Family Life, Avon (New York, NY), 1975, revised edition, Sun & Moon (Los Angeles, CA), 1988.
Hamilton Stark, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1978, new edition, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
The Book of Jamaica, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1980.
The Relation of My Imprisonment, Sun & Moon (College Park, MD), 1984.
Continental Drift, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1985.
Affliction, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1990.
The Sweet Hereafter, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
Rule of the Bone, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Cloudsplitter, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.
Darling, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
(With Paul C. Metcalf) Paul Metcalf—A Special Issue, Lillabulero Press (Northwood Narrows, NH), 1973.
(Editor, with Michael Ondaatje and David Young) Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness, Coach House (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989.
(With Arturo Patten) The Invisible Stranger: The Patten, Maine, Photographs of Arturo Patten, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
Contributor to Portfolio/1967: Poems, Lillabulero Press, 1967; Antaeus, No. 45-56: The Autobiographical Eye, Ecco Press, 1982; The Pushcart Prize X: Best of the Small Presses, Pushcart Press, 1985; and Mark Twain, Knopf, 2001. Author of introduction, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Folio Society, 1992; coauthor, with William Matthews, of Lillabulero: A Journal of Contemporary Writing.
Contributor of essays to numerous periodicals, including Transition, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, American Review, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper's, Antaeus, Partisan Review, New England Review, Fiction International, and Boston Globe Magazine.
Banks has made several audio recordings, including Russell Banks Reads Excerpts from Continental Drift, American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1986; Russell Banks Interview with Kay Bonetti, American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1986; Weekend Edition, Sunday, 5-22-1988, National Public Radio (Washington, DC), 1988; Russell Banks Reads from His Novel Affliction, and Talks about Working Class Heroes, 1991; Russell Banks Reads from The Sweet Hereafter, and Talks about Snow as Metaphor, and Community Response to Tragedy, Moveable Feast (New York, NY), 1994. Also, "The Gully," Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, and Cloudsplitter have been released as audio books. His work has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Japanese.
ADAPTATIONS: The Sweet Hereafter was adapted for the screen in a 1997 version directed by Atom Egoyan. A film version of Affliction, also released in 1997, was directed by Paul Schrader and starred Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Sissy Spacek, and James Coburn.
SIDELIGHTS: Russell Banks is a native New Englander who has drawn on his experiences in the region's small towns, many of which have been hard-hit by economic decline, to create fiction that captures the lives of Northeastern people. As Banks has continued to add to the body of his novels, "he has ever more clearly emerged as a writer from the white working class," noted Fred Pfeil in the Voice Literary Supplement, "writing directly about the rage and damage, the capitulations, self-corruptions, and small resistances of subordinated lives." Banks offered his own view of the character of his fiction in an interview in the New York Times Book Review. "I grew up in a working-class family," he explained. For this reason, "I have a less obstructed path as a writer to get to the center of their lives. Part of the challenge of what I write is uncovering the resiliency of that kind of life, and part is in demonstrating that even the quietest lives can be as complex and rich, as joyous, conflicted and anguished, as other, seemingly more dramatic lives." These characteristics support Pfeil's belief that "Banks has now become … the most important living white male American on the official literary map, a writer we, as readers and writers, can actually learn from, whose books help and urge us to change."
Trailerpark and Hamilton Stark both take place in New Hampshire. Both works feature desperate, not always admirable, lead characters. In Trailerpark, the inhabiants of the trailers gathered in the poor part of town include a demented woman who raises dozens of guinea pigs, a drug pusher, and other outcasts. New York Times Book Review writer Ivan Gold found fault with Banks's omnipresent narrator in this collection—the "imprecise cracker barrel tone and the equally arbitrary departure from it are accompanied by sometimes illuminating, more often disorienting, leaps in time," he remarked. However, in his Washington Post Book World review, Jonathan Yardley saw the collection as individual pieces of art: "Each [is uncommonly good, and the whole of Trailerpark is greater than the sum of its parts; it is an odd, quirky book that offers satisfactions different from those provided by the conventional, or even unconventional, novel." Yardley further stated that he saw in Trailerpark "brief stories of hope and disappointment, of infidelity and murder, of betrayal and alienation. They are bleak stories set in a bleak place, yet there is a wicked comic edge to them. Banks has a terrific eye, mordant yet affectionate, for the bric-a-brac and the pathos of the American dream."
With Hamilton Stark, the author presents a title character with very few redeeming qualities. Newsweek critic Margo Jefferson described him as "a misanthropic New Hampshire pipe fitter [who is frequently drunk and abusive. He hurls furniture into the fields surrounding his house, then fires his rifle at it for sport…. He rejects love of any sort, finding hate the more interesting emotion…. To his neighbors he is possibly a madman." Nevertheless, at least two people find Stark fascinating: Stark's grown daughter and the book's narrator, each of whom is trying to write a novel about this quirky character. While the narrator's novel is about Hamilton Stark, Banks's novel is about the narrator, "the way The Great Gatsby is more about Nick Carro-way than Jay Gatsby," as Terence Winch pointed out in a Washington Post Book World review. Winch also speculates that Banks is portraying Hamilton Stark himself as the narrator, "or a version of the narrator…. But ultimately these issues—Who is Hamilton Stark? Or who is the narrator? And are they the same person?—are academic." What is important, said the critic, is that "Banks has skillfully used his repertoire of contemporary techniques to write a novel that is classically American—a dark, but sometimes funny, romance with echoes of Poe and Melville."
The Book of Jamaica and Continental Drift both concern themselves with travel and self-discovery. In the former, a thirty-five-year-old New Hampshire college professor travels to the Caribbean to finish a novel and finds himself so drawn to the island of Jamaica that he decides to live there among its people. In the beginning, the unnamed narrator "finds daunting mysteries and complexities at every turn," according to New York Times Book Review critic Darryl Pinckney. But "what he lacks in intuition and skepticism he makes up for with a self-lacerating sensitivity of which he is quite proud." Washington Post reviewer James W. Marks believed that "the most distinctive feature of the novel is Banks' rigorous exploitation of point of view. A melange of voices results from the novel's medium-is-the-message: 'You will see what you want to see.' Shifts in point of view define the structure and specify the stages in the hero's progress." Marks concluded that despite some "self-conscious sermonizing" in the book, the author "deserves praise for the novel's weight of thought; he has read much and pondered long."
Much critical attention greeted the publication of Continental Drift, often acknowledged as one of Banks's most ambitious novels. The story covers the lives of two characters who are worlds apart culturally and geographically, but who share the same dreams of bettering their lives by moving to a new home. For thirty-year-old Bob Dubois, a New Hampshire oil-burner repairman with a wife, two daughters, and a girlfriend, the solution to his aimless life lies in moving the family to Florida, where he hopes to gain a partnership in his brother's liquor store. At the same time, Vanise Dorsinville, a Haitian woman who looks after her infant son and her nephew, longs to emigrate to America to start a new life. Within these parameters, Banks has constructed tragic, interlocking stories in a novel "that will surely imprint [the author's name on the roster of important contemporary novelists. The physical world with its natural beauties and blights is played off against what Banks sees as an abandonment of enduring social values by modern man for the seductive promises of material success," as Ralph B. Sipper commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "It is clear that the electronic age has freed man's mind," continued Sipper. "What has happened to his heart is a question that [Continental Drift explores."
In his New York Review of Books article, Robert Towers described Continental Drift as Banks's most potentially "commercial" novel and notes that "admirers of [the author's early fiction, which resisted conventional narrative, may find this objectionable, but his new book strikes me as the most interesting he has yet produced. [The novel is an absorbing and powerful book that ambitiously attempts to 'speak' to the times." Nation critic James Marcus also found Banks's move away from experimental fiction a successful one, declaring that, in Continental Drift, the author has "developed a vigorous, unornamented style which moves easily between narrative and authorial aside. This facility allows a double-edged view of Bob, as an eloquently fleshed-out character and as a type, a subject for speculation. Banks steps onstage repeatedly to discuss Bob's character, intelligence and sexuality, but these lectures don't seem condescending; nor does Banks outfit Bob with the usual bloodless accouterments of the common man—sentimental honesty or sentimental ingenuity. Average, yes, but also solid, painful and real."
Banks's novel Affliction is a "gripping, most beautiful, grim and wide-sweeping novel," wrote Carol Ascher in the Women's Review of Books. "The book is a requiem for a working-class manhood, no longer viable if it ever had been, that careens between decency, even sweetness, and brutal violence." The novel is Rolfe White-house's attempt to reconstruct the recent events of his older brother Wade's life in order to understand his disappearance. Wade is in his forties and works as a jack-of-all-trades in his hometown, a small town in New Hampshire. He takes after his father in his tendencies to excessive drinking and abusive behavior. These have cost him his first marriage and the affection of his daughter. Wade becomes obsessed by the death of a visiting union official in a hunting accident.
Eric Larsen commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "The book has at its heart a firm, lean, real, observed, honest story; but all around that heart, as if it's felt just not to be sufficient in itself, are built-up thicknesses and protections of the derivative, inflated and excessive, of the posturing and often just plain false-toned." Fred Pfeil held these same characteristics as among Affliction's strengths, maintaining that "Banks avoids the twin dangers of a mere 'sociological' accuracy on the one hand and a voyeuristic sensationalism on the other, through a wise combination of elevation and distancing techniques."
With Affliction, observed Sven Birkerts in the New Republic, Banks returned to fiction that is both geographically and spiritually closer to home. "Where [Continental Drift charted a grand scheme of cultural migration, seeking to isolate the larger as well as the human-sized circulations of malaise," wrote Birkerts, "Affliction stays rooted in place, hews to a single scale. Its study is the deeper ramifications of blood and kinship; it roots in to find the wellsprings of the will to violence." Birkerts concluded, "Bank's idiom is now vigorous and gritty, perfectly suited to the life of his characters and place. With his last few books, but with Affliction especially, he joins that group of small-town realists—writers like William Kennedy, Andre Dubus, and Larry Woiwode—who have worked to sustain what may in time be seen as our dominant tradition. Like them, Banks unfolds the sufferings of the ordinary life, of those who must worry, who can't be happy."
In The Sweet Hereafter, "Russell Banks has used a small town's response to tragedy to write a novel of compelling moral suspense," Richard Eder pointed out in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The town is Sam Dent, a small burg in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. The tragedy is an accident; a school bus swerves off a snowy road and falls into a quarry pond. Fourteen of the town's children die, and several other people are injured. Banks tells the story of the tragedy and its aftermath through four narrators in sequence. The narrators are Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver; Billy Ansel, a garage owner who has lost his two daughters; Mitchell Stevens, a New York lawyer who comes to capitalize on the town's misfortune; and Nicole Burnell, a promising teenager left paralyzed by the accident. The four accounts follow the town through its process of dealing with this tragedy.
Rule of the Bone is Russell Banks's nod to Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and other chroniclers of wayward youth. Bone, a Huck Finn for the 1990s, is a mall rat from a working-class family in upstate New York. He runs away from his dysfunctional family and sets off in search of new role models. He first tries a gang of bikers and eventually finds a Rastafarian who lives in a bus. This Jamaican, I-Man, becomes to Bone what Jim became to Huck Finn, and the two set off on a journey to Jamaica. In Bone's travels, the reader learns of what his world has and lacks. "Banks gives the entire story over to a child," observes Ann Hulbert in the New Republic, "and the result is brutally, often fantastically, picaresque." Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributor Hal Crowther says Bone's story is "a tour de force of a monologue, it's a guidebook to an underworld we never visit, and it answers our first question—what's lurking in the brain beneath that ghastly mohawk?"
For some reviewers, Rule of the Bone succeeds not because it pays homage to previous coming-of-age novels, but because it gives voice to a new generation of Huck Finns and Holden Caufields. As Hal Crowther put it, "Russell Banks has a singular gift for articulating the feelings of characters who would pass for inarticulate in the world. He trades in stunted lives and undernourished spirits; he gives them voices. And he knows there's beauty in a spirit almost crushed that somehow finds the soil and light to grow in." Gail Caldwell offered a similar view in a Boston Globe article. "Banks has the voice just right: Bone alternately manages to irritate, endear and outrage, just like thousands of other misbegotten kids through the ages. The end of the novel, after a few ludicrously unmoving events, is lovely in its simplicity. What Russell Banks has given us in his fiction is the truth—sometimes creepily intimate—about what's going on in the underpasses of America's highways." Caldwell added that Banks "also writes better about race, from a white man's perspective, than most of his peers."
In Cloudsplitter, "Banks' most ambitious and fully realized novel since Continental Drift," as reviewed by Michiko Kakutani of the daily New York Times, Banks attempts to tell the difficult story of John Brown, a radical abolitionist who sought to bring a violent end to the practice of slavery with a raid on a government armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859. Kakutani maintained that the novel "makes for some highly entertaining—and at times affecting—reading."
In 2000 Banks published The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks, a collection that includes twenty-two works from earlier in Banks's career as well as nine new pieces. The works presented illustrate "a master writer at his best," thought Library Journal reviewer Robert E. Brown. As in his earlier fiction, Banks writes about the quiet desperation of common men and women in these "almost unbearably poignant, unflinching glimpses into the dark recesses of life," as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly described them. However, that reviewer continued, the stories are also "illuminated by Banks's unfailing compassion."
Banks's empathy with his often ordinary characters is mirrored by his ordinary surroundings, as described in a summer, 2000, profile by Allen St. John in Book magazine. Visiting Banks at his home, "a brick-red, ranch-style house that has served as a home away from home to visiting writers like Richard Ford," St. John observed the strikingly common neighborhood in which the writer lived: "The street, in Princeton, New Jersey, lined by tiny split-levels and neatly groomed yards, has the markings of a place where lawn flamingos once roamed free." Banks himself joked that the place "looks like it belongs to a midlevel Mafia caporegime," and St. John noted that "the only clue that this isn't a button man's abode" is "the 'Wade Whitehouse for Sheriff' bumper sticker on the Subaru wagon."
Not only the environment in which he lives and works, but also the attitude of Banks himself, reflects a closeness and familiarity with the thoughts of ordinary people. "When I began," he told St. John, "my audience was largely late middle age, people who bought literary books that were recommended in The New York Times. As I've gotten older, my audience has become much younger and more diverse in terms of class and race and background, cultural and otherwise. I'm enormously pleased by this."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Niemi, Robert, Russell Banks, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1996.
Novels for Students, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
America, May 2, 1992, p. 391.
Atlantic Monthly, February, 1985.
Bloomsbury Review, November-December, 1989, p. 7; March, 1992, p. 3.
Book, July/August, 2000, Allen St. John, "Russell Banks: Telling Stories," pp. 38-41.
Booklist, January 1, 1999, review of Cloudsplitter, p. 778; March 15, 1999, review of the audio version of Cloudsplitter, p. 1350.
Book World, February 27, 1999, review of Cloudsplitter, p. 6.
Boston Globe, September 10, 1989, p. 100; October 4, 1989, p. 69; August 25, 1991, p. M15; January 19, 1992, p. A14; May 14, 1995, p. 33; May 28, 1995, p. B30.
Chicago Tribune, March 17, 1985.
Chicago Tribune Book World, July 6, 1980.
Christian Science Monitor, September 20, 1989, p. 13; September 24, 1991, p. 14.
Commonweal, October 24, 1986, p. 570.
Entertainment Weekly, February 12, 1999, review of Cloudsplitter, p. 75.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), February 13, 1999, review of Affliction, p. D-15.
Hungry Mind Review, summer, 1999, review of Rule of the Bone, p. 46.
Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, GA), September 17, 1989, p. L10; May 14, 1995, p. M11.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, May, 1999, review of the audio version of Cloudsplitter, p. 52.
Library Journal, June 1, 2000, review of The Angel on the Roof, p. 206.
Listener, October 10, 1985, p. 29; September 13, 1990, p. 34.
Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1989, p. B10; September 30, 1991, p. E1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 17, 1985, p. 5; June 22, 1986, p. 3; August 20, 1989, p. 10; September 1, 1991, p. 3; May 21, 1995, p. 3.
Maclean's, September 18, 1989, p. 68.
Nation, February 10, 1972; April 27, 1985, p. 505; September 13, 1986, p. 226; December 16, 1991, p. 786; June 12, 1995, p. 826.
New Republic, April 1, 1985, p. 38; September 11, 1989, p. 38; May 29, 1995, p. 40.
New Statesman, September 5, 1986, p. 28; September 21, 1990, p. 41.
Newsweek, June 26, 1978; February 25, 1985, p. 86; June 2, 1986, p. 72; September 18, 1989, p. 76; September 16, 1991, p. 62.
New York, May 8, 1995, p. 70.
New Yorker, April 15, 1985, p. 126; October 28, 1991, p. 119.
New York Review of Books, April 11, 1985, p. 36; December 7, 1989, p. 46.
New York Times, February 27, 1985, p. 18; May 31, 1986, p. 13; September 8, 1989, p. C26; September 6, 1991, p. C21; May 19, 1995, p. B8; June 1, 2000, Janet Maslin, "The Grit of Daily Life Meets Spiritual Epiphany."
New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1975; May 18, 1975; July 2, 1978; February 25, 1979; June 1, 1980; November 22, 1981; April 1, 1984; March 24, 1985, p. 11; September 17, 1989, p. 7; December 7, 1989, p. 46; September 15, 1991, p. 1; May 7, 1995, p. 13; June 18, 1995, p. 3; February 22, 1998, p. 9; February 7, 1999, review of Cloudsplitter, p. 24; June 25, 2000, A.O. Scott, "Cold Comfort."
New York Times Magazine, September 10, 1989, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1985; June 14, 1999, review of The Invisible Stranger, p. 63.
Quill and Quire, October, 1989, p. 27.
Saturday Review, May, 1980; October, 1981.
Time, September 4, 1989, p. 66; June 5, 1995, p. 65.
Times Educational Supplement, August 27, 1999, review of Cloudsplitter, p. 21.
Times Literary Supplement, October 25, 1985, p. 1203; October 26, 1990, p. 1146; April 17, 1992, p. 20.
Tribune Books (Chicago), September 3, 1989, p. 1; September 15, 1991, p. 1.
Voice Literary Supplement, September, 1989, p. 25.
Washington Post, April 18, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, July 2, 1978; October 4, 1981; April 29, 1984; March 3, 1985, p. 3; Septem-ber 24, 1989, p. 7; September 8, 1991, p. 3; October 13, 1991, p. 15; August 16, 1992, p. 12.
Women's Review of Books, April, 1990, p. 21.
Yale Review, January, 1999, review of Cloudsplitter, p. 139.
HarperCollins, http://www.harpercollins.com/ (April 23, 2002), author bio of Banks.
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (April 23, 2002), Jonathan Miles, review of The Angel on the Roof.
Russell Banks (video), UWTV (Seattle, WA), 1998.