Appreciation for Russell Banks, the American novelist who died on Saturday

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During America’s renewed book-ban craze, I was disappointed that “Rule of the Bone” didn’t inspire more pedants to start collecting dry sticks. When it came out in 1995, Russell Banks’ explicit, drug-filled novel about a troubled 14-year-old boy caused predictable alarm. But now it’s not even on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most contested books.

Is it possible that “Rule of the Bone” fell so far into obscurity that it didn’t engage disaffected teenagers and shock a new generation of censoring politicians?

God forbid, because we need Banks’ work now more than ever.

Banks, who died on Saturday at the age of 82, was the author of 14 novels, along with several works of non-fiction, poetry books and short story collections. His narrative was relentlessly serious, reflecting the scale and scope of what is at stake for beings burdened with a conscience. This is the subject of all fiction, one way or another, but few novelists have struggled so strenuously with the mental anguish of falling short of our ideals. He has developed a particular expertise in the way national and personal regrets mix.

One of his greatest novels, “Continental Drift” (1985), flays the American dream alive. His epic masterpiece, “Cloudsplitter”-finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction-recalls the life of violent abolitionist John Brown. “The Darling” (2004) traces the disillusionment of a member of the Weather Underground who flees to Liberia and becomes entangled in that country’s gruesome civil war.

“Rule of the Bone” is no less brutal, but it is more intimate and more implicit in its commentary on the conflicted state of our nation’s soul. The teenage narrator, Chappie, is homeless. He’s something of a blessing given his abusive stepfather’s behavior, but life alone is a series of harrowing ordeals.

When I was teaching English, I sometimes recommended ‘Rule of the Bone’ to mature students who had enjoyed ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ but had begun to find Holden Caulfield a bit twee. As many critics have noted, Chappie is closest to Huck Finn, another vulnerable boy outcast on the run through the gauntlet of American society.

“People basically don’t know how kids think,” says Chappie. “I guess they forget about it.”

Banks have never forgotten. She remembered the boys’ infinite capacity for kindness, their fragile hopes and above all their profound confusion.

“When you’re a kid,” says Chappie, “it’s like you wear these binoculars strapped to your eyes and you can’t see anything except what’s in the dead center of the lenses because you’re either too afraid of everything else or you don’t understand it and people expect you to, so you feel stupid all the time.

“The Magic Kingdom”, Russell Banks’ latest novel, reveals a lost paradise

Banks’ vision was miraculously bifocal. If one eye was tied to a telescope aimed at the past, the other was always scrutinizing the psyche through a microscope. His latest novel, “The Magic Kingdom”—published just two months ago—demonstrates the extraordinary persistence of his talent, especially his focus on the agony of crushed innocence.

The story is about Harley, a boy raised by philosophical zealots who emerged from the soil of American radical utopian movements in the late 19th century. He and his family eventually end up taking refuge in a Shaker settlement in Florida. The demands for total chastity in this isolated community are compounded by the insistence on total openness and unlimited love for one another. While based on historical events around what is now Disney World, “The Magic Kingdom” is more concerned with exploring the rough spiritual geography Harley faces. How, the novel asks, will this young man live up to the impossible ideals that surpass his good intentions?

“I was a ruthless, critical, proud moralist,” Harley confessed many decades later. “The Shakers hated hypocrisy as much as I do, or as much as any thoughtful child hates hypocrisy.”

Few of us live in utopian communities, but many of us swear allegiance – implicitly or explicitly – to high political and ethical values. And fortunately, most of us retain at least some hatred for self-righteousness throughout our lives, even as life inevitably drags us towards compromises, betrayals, and failures. Ignoring that discomfort is not a sign of maturity; it is a symptom of moral idiocy.

Banks understood that terrifying situation and explored it in his fiction with a sensitivity more fearless than any contemporary American novelist. The result was an inevitable but always thoughtful sadness that pervaded his work. In a less resilient writer, that melancholy would have turned to despair. But even as they stare into the abyss, Banks’ characters are never allowed to escape.

His penultimate novel, ‘Foregone’ is about a documentary filmmaker who dies of cancer, which is ultimately what killed Banks. Despite the escape from the hospice, the director continues to examine his past, to confess his sins, to seek atonement.

“There is no more unfinished future work to protect and promote,” Banks writes. “No unfulfilled career ambitions. There’s no one left to impress. Nothing to win or lose.

Rest in peace, Mr Banks. You’ve earned it.

Ron Carlo reviews books and writes the Book Club Bulletin for the Washington Post.

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