A Permanent Member of the Family, by Russell Banks *****

Nobody writes like Russell Banks. His short story collection has the harsh beauty of a Yankee winter. I was lucky enough to get my copy courtesy of Goodreads.com’s first reads program. Tales of loneliness, alienation, disorientation or sheer, stark horror are the writer’s stock in trade. His characters, ordinary working people so real that they stand before the reader, live lives of disappointment, near-misses, and sometimes terrible endings.

Think of “The Lottery”. There you have it, but in a contemporary setting.

Why read stories grim enough to bruise the psyche? What keeps us coming back once our eyes and hearts are seared by the cruel world he exposes? Maybe it’s because he recognizes the working men and women who make the world go around, or maybe we revel in real-life tragedy: that could have been us. As we close the cover and walk away, life seems a little sweeter. Just enough poignancy is injected into his tales to make us treasure our lives, without giving way to corny sentimentality. And there is never a stereotype anywhere. Banks has too much respect for the working class to let that happen.

Occasional moments of wry humor, such as the “invisible” product being marketed by the traveling preacher, break up the tension to some degree.

I have read other reviewers who feel burned out by Banks because of the painful quality of his stories. If like me, you love great writing but feel the need of a break from the sorrow there, this volume is perfect. Read a short story; then go get another book by someone else that’s a little less dark and foreboding. Come back and read another short story by Banks when you are prepared for it. With the short stories, it is easy to find a place to pause, then return.

Banks has been translated into twenty different languages, and he is widely recognized as one of the best writers in the world. Don’t let this opportunity to read him pass you by!

Trailerpark, by Russell Banks *****

Aside

Who but Banks would even go there? He makes his characters real and gives them credible back stories. None of the stereotypes generally dealt out to people who live in mobile homes surface here. His respectful attitude toward every day, working class people, or in some cases, people who have slid from a position of greater prosperity, makes this book work. The transitions are so smooth, so subtly crafted that when one character, one I felt almost as if I knew them as family, eased into the life of another who had been separately introduced, it was close to magical.

I have no doubt that Banks is one of America’s greatest novelists. When he publishes something, I read it (and I recently got to write an advance review; see A Permanent Member of the Family). But one hallmark of his novels–all of them–is tragedy. If you want a good three-hankie-narrative, he’s your writer. I once went on a jag of reading nothing but Russell Banks, and found myself nearly ready to go put my head in the oven. (That would have been a painful way to go, since my oven is not gas, but electric.) From this, I learned that it’s best to read Banks alongside a little of something else. That way I can enjoy his genius without having to carry all of the novel’s despair.

At one point, I said Cloudsplitter was my favorite Banks novel. Now I think it may be a tie. Read them and see what you think, if you like well-developed, real characters, and can deal with (often) unhappy endings.