FICTION: Stories from a master of American letters.
When an American heavyweight writer releases his first collection of short stories in almost 15 years, we should sit up and take note. “A Permanent Member of the Family” is Russell Banks’ sixth selection of short works in a long and distinguished career. Some of the 12 tales have appeared in magazines, others are new; virtually all are remarkable sharp-focus snapshots of the giddy whirl and tragicomedy of modern-day American life.
In the first story, “Former Marine,” an ex-military man, jilted by his wife (“She quit before I could fire her”) resorts to desperate measures to stay afloat in an uncaring society. So far so generic. But Banks blends in pathos and moral complexity by bringing in his fallen hero’s three sons — all of them in law enforcement — to agonize over whether to arraign their own parent and render him an “ex-father.” In “Christmas Party” it is an ex-husband who is the broken man, one whose loss is exacerbated when he is invited by his former wife and her new man to drink eggnog and decorate the tree.
Other characters in other stories seem at first glance tougher, more resilient, but Banks swiftly delights in exposing Achilles’ heels. In “Transplant,” a man who has recently acquired a new heart finds the renewed optimism from his fresh start threatened when the heart donor’s widow asks to meet him. The artist who wins a MacArthur award in “Big Dog” learns the hard way that not every friend is keen on celebrating his success. And the garrulous drunk who props up a bar in “The Green Door” gets more than he bargained for when he heads out to a sex club.
Banks’ fictive worlds are peopled with men flailing without women and blundering in old age, men undone by a single rash act or a catalog of pivotal misjudgments. In stark contrast, his women are survivors who decide they don’t need men (“Snowbirds”) or insist on calling the shots (“Lost and Found”).
Most tales unfold in clear, sober prose, steadily snowballing toward disaster or critical revelation. One story ends quite literally with a bang, the majority with a whimper — no bad thing, for Banks’ downbeat play-outs create resounding echoes and leave lasting ripples. Here and there his lonely souls recoup their “small increments of loss” and rejection gives way to revival.
Not every story works, though. Despite the inherent drama, the eponymous tale feels anticlimactic; and “Blue,” about a woman locked overnight in a used-car lot with a snarling pit bull for company, is so pock-marked with plot holes the reader is forced to suspend disbelief to make it work. Banks plays safe with simple, literal titles and for settings rarely strays from upstate New York and Miami, the two places he calls home. There is also nothing to rival the artistic range of novels like “Cloudsplitter,” his 1998 historical masterpiece about an abolitionist.
And yet Banks ensures each story is a snippet of life, packing every vignette with pulse and emotion. Whether we are reading about disintegrating families or ruined marriages, dead dogs or invisible parrots, the best stories here are stunning depictions of human survival and vulnerability.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.