Atom Egoyan's Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter
is a good movie, remarkably faithful to the spirit of Russell Banks's novel of the same name, but Banks's book is twice as good. With the cool logic of accreting snowflakes, his prose builds a world--a small U.S. town near Canada--and peoples it with four vivid, sensitive souls linked by a school-bus tragedy: the bus driver; the widowed Vietnam vet who was driving behind the bus, waving at his kids, when it went off the road; the perpetually peeved negligence lawyer who tries to shape the victims' heartaches into a winning case; and the beauty-queen cheerleader crippled by the crash, whose testimony will determine everyone's fate.
We experience the story from inside the heads of the four characters in turn--each knowing things the others don't, each misunderstanding the facts in his or her own way. The method resembles Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Gilbert Sorrentino's stunning Aberration of Starlight, but Banks's achievement is most comparable to John Updike's tales of ordinary small-towners preternaturally gifted with slangy eloquence, psychological insights, and alertness to life's tiniest details.
Egoyan's film is haunting but vague--it leaves viewers in the dark regarding several critical plot points. Banks's book is more haunting still, and precise, making every revelation count, with a finale far superior to that of the film. It's also wittier than the too-sober flick: the lawyer dismisses the dome-dwelling hippie parents of one of the crash victims as being "lost in their Zen Little Indians fantasy," which casts a sharp light on them and him, too. He's lost in his calculations of how each parent will fit into the legal system, and the ways in which he fits into the tragedy are lost on him. If only he and the Vietnam-vet dad could read each other's account of their tense first encounter, both of them might get what the other is missing.
Banks's wit is pitiless--it's painful when we discover that the bus driver, who prides herself on interpreting for her stroke-impaired husband, is translating his wise but garbled observations all wrong. The crash turns out not to be the ultimate tragedy: in the cold northern light of its aftermath, we discover that we're all in this alone.
From Publishers Weekly
With resonating effect, Banks ( Continental Drift ; Affliction ) tackles the provocative subject of a fatal accident involving children, and its effect on a small community. On a frigid, snowy morning in the Adirondacks, veteran school bus driver Dolores Driscoll goes off the road, carrying 14 children to their deaths. Dolores survives; hers is the first and the last narrative voice here. Plainspoken and pragmatic, Dolores and her crippled husband have been longtime residents of the close-knit, economically depressed town of Sam Dents, but the accident makes her an outcast. The flat, almost uninflected voice of Vietnam vet and recent widower Billy Ansel, who witnessed the accident, reflects the numbness he now seeks: both his children died in the crash. Though Banks makes too much of Billy's "noble" character, he effectively portrays the man's refuge in drink and his downhill slide. When he introduces the obsessive, enraged voice of New York negligence lawyer Mitchell Stephens, who hopes to manipulate the bereaved into bringing suit against anyone he can find to blame, Banks jolts the narrative into high gear, and uses Stephens's contempt for the grieving parents--their "sagging porches and rusting pickup trucks"--to render a clear sociological portrait of the community. Beautiful teenager Nicholesp ok? Burnell, crippled as a result of her injuries, takes revenge in her own way, propelling the novel to a moving denouement. Banks handles his dark theme with judicious restraint, empathy and compassion; the result is that this book is less downbeat than his previous works--and more powerful. 30,000 first printing; $45,000 ad/promo.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.