A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks

permanentIt has been years since I have read anything by Russell Banks.  I like his work, but he doesn’t write feel good material.  The last book I read by him was Rule of the Bone, and he’s also known for The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, none of which set a cheerful mood.  But is Banks worth reading?  Yes, because he writes in an engaging and brisk style, and it’s easy to get into his worlds.

Novels are Banks’ mainstay.  It’s been awhile since his last batch of short stories (The Angel on the Roof), so this new collection was highly welcome.

Here, Banks focuses on your ordinaries – people who are not exceptional, rich, or glamorous, but who find themselves in windows of strangeness.  Sometimes their actions are self-destructive – witness the main character in “Former Marine”, a retiree who wishes to maintain a facade with his three sons by breaking the law, or the installation artist in “Big Dog”, flush with excitement over a major award, who manages to alienate wife and friends over the short course of a dinner party.

Other characters are more sympathetic – the lady caught overnight in a car lot with an unwelcome canine companion in “Blue” comes to mind.  Others commit adulteries (or would-be adulteries), atrocities, and occasional unintended kindnesses.  It’s a mixed bag of sad and violent tales that compel you on to the last page – not for cozy lovers.

Tthose who have read James McBride’s most recent The Good Lord Bird might be interested in Banks’ Cloudsplitter, another fictional take about John Brown and his times.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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