Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter
) started out as a poet, and nowhere is this more evident than in his 37 years' worth of exquisite short stories, collected here in one hefty volume for the first time. In a mournfully lyrical phrase, he can evoke his characteristic landscape, the icy northeastern U.S.: "The air was crystalline, almost absent. The fields lay like aged plates of bone--dry, scoured by the cold until barren of possibility, incapable even of decomposition." Though his stories venture to Jamaica and Africa, Banks keeps coming back to New Hampshire and the themes of divorce, poverty, violence, and what he calls "the old father-and-son thing." He's not slumming in his trailer-park tales: his own drunken prole father beat him brutally, and Banks knows how grief and guilt shatter and unite families and small towns.
Characters often crop up in more than one story, giving the setting novelistic depth, drawing us into each life. In "Queen for a Day," we meet the young children of the Painter clan of New Hampshire as their dad is abandoning their mom, who then loses her job. "They run to her and wrap her in their arms... the three of them wind around each other like snakes moving in and out of one another's coils." In "Firewood," Painter's grown children rebuff his offer of fuel for their hearth, repaying his indifference, and Banks gives us a bad-guy's-eye view of their shared loneliness. In "The Fisherman," a $50,000 lottery is won by an old ice fisherman who stashes it in a cigar box, eliciting character-revealing reactions from the trailer-park denizens. "Dis Bwoy, Him Gwan" further reveals why the local pothead Bruce Severance so urgently needs the fisherman's money. The stories resonate and illuminate each other, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the collection has the cohesiveness of a 500-page novel. Banks's prose has the stark grace of classical tragedy. He's a poet after all. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Two-thirds of the 32 stories in this magnificent collection have appeared before, in the four volumes of short fiction Banks has published over the past 25 years; all, including nine new ones, were chosen by the author as representative of work that "did not on rereading make me cringe." Banks is a born short story writer and confesses he loves the form; in many of the entries here, the impact is all the more powerful for the intense concentration he brings to bear on the desperate lives he so often chooses to chronicle. The best of these tales, many of them set in the sad New Hampshire trailer park that was the basis for an entire collection of linked tales, tell of the anguish of parents and children moving apart, of husbands and wives and lovers facing the grim certainty that nothing in their relationships is going to change or improve. "The Burden," about a man's despairing break with his no-good son; "Quality Time," about a daughter realizing she has finally moved away from her father; "Firewood," about a couple trapped by ruined expectations; and "Queen for a Day," about a small boy's efforts to cheer up his failing mother, are almost unbearably poignant, unflinching glimpses into the dark recesses of life, illuminated by Banks's unfailing compassion and steady eye and ear. These stories, like his wintry northern landscapes, are deeply lived in. Yet Banks can be equally evocative of exotic corners of the world, as in "Djinn" and "The Fish," mysterious fables set in Africa and India. Only in such flights as "Indisposed," an imagining of William Hogarth's wife, or "With Che in New Hampshire," in which he mixes myth and actuality, does Banks seem on more tentative ground. But most of the stories strike home swiftly and surely, reminding a reader again and again of the amplitude of the form in the hands of a master. (June)
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