9.18.2011

what i'm reading, squeaking under the wire fall edition

I managed to squeeze in one more book, a few last precious moments of reading, before the must-reads of the fall term descend on me. It was a goodie.

I read mostly nonfiction these days, and seem to find very few novels that rise to my standards - which, I grant, may be ridiculously high. Every so often, I think maybe I just don't like contemporary fiction anymore. Then I read something by Roddy Doyle, or A. L. Kennedy, or William Trevor, or Toni Morrison - among others, there are definitely others - and my marvel at great fiction is restored. Russell Banks is one such writer.

I've just finished one of his early novels, Continental Drift. It tells the stories of two people from totally different cultures and parts of the earth - the working poor of small-town America, and the grinding poverty and repression of Haiti. Each are groping and questing, trying to find a way out. The reader assumes the two stories will intersect at some point, but nothing unfolds in predictable ways.

Banks has a profound understanding of people's internal motivations - the complex, unstated, largely subconscious inner workings behind the choices we make. (His male characters, especially, from New England or upstate New York, are incredibly well drawn.) In Continental Drift, the life journeys of the characters call up complicated questions of moral confusion, identity, racism, love, attraction, and the definitions of success and happiness - what it means to be a good person, or a person at all - in a superficial, consumerist, materialistic world. It's tremendously ambitious, beautifully written, very moving and disturbing in all the right ways.

This is from "About Russell Banks" at the end of the Canadian paperback edition of Continental Drift. It's unsigned, so it may be written by the author himself.
The novel is the story of Bob Dubois, a burnt-out oil burner repairman from New Hampshire struggling to escape mediocrity, and Vanise Dorsinville, a refugee struggling to escape Haiti for the promised land of America, and the tragedy that ensues when they become involved in each other's destiny. The novel's title refers to the theory that the earth's continents were once a united land mass that broke up and continues to drift slowly apart. Banks, however, is referring to demographic, not geologic, drifting, as people all over the world flee their homes in search of new lives. He is also describing the drift that occurs between human hearts, leaving an unbridgeable gap between husbands and wives, families and friends.
Banks himself has an interesting history. From a working class and troubled background, Banks was an adult before he attempted any writing. He was 35 years old when his first book was published, and 45 when he achieved critical success. Those are the kinds of stories, like that of William Kennedy, that used to sustain me as a writer.

If you haven't yet read Russell Banks, his novel Cloudsplitter, about the radical abolitionist John Brown, is his masterpiece (so far). Rule of the Bone is one of the finest young adult crossover novels of our time. I think of it as grandchild to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which it consciously echoes, and child to The Catcher in the Rye.

7 comments:

johngoldfine said...

When I was a more ambitious teacher, I tried his 'Trailer Park' stories out on my community college students, though back then it was Eastern Maine Vocational Technical Institute.

Wide range of student reactions: everything from feeling offended to utter astonishment that anyone understood so well to complete indifference. But it's impossible to drive from Swanville Maine to Bangor without thinking of those stories somewhere along the way.

If you want a documentary that is Banksian in spirit and content, you might like Frederic Wiseman's 'Belfast Maine.'

johngoldfine said...

I'm rereading 'Bright-Sided,' to buck me up in my dealings with compulsive managerial cheeriness.

laura k said...

John, that's great you did those stories with your students. I wonder if any of them have been introduced to Carolyn Chute.

Have you read any of Banks' novels? I think Trailerpark is a bit different, his earlier work.

I've seen the Wiseman film. :)

johngoldfine said...

I've read 'Affliction' and 'The Sweet Hereafter.' I like and admire his stuff immensely, but that's not quite the same as saying I seek it out. It's powerful, but the aesthetic rush does not quite compensate for the psychological punishment.

Swanville is a suburb of Belfast, Maine, so the documentary was both very familiar visually, but also it was startling to see the familiar as sieved through Wiseman's sensibility and world view.

My wife is in one scene--her only stab at showbiz!

johngoldfine said...

I don't think I could sell Carolyn Chute to EMCC students--she belongs up the road at the University in Orono.

It's not that Bean's or Letourneau's are patronizing, but they are extremely literary: they don't offer happy closure, straightforward morality tales, and sentimental certainties. Of course, getting the student beyond those first reactions is the teacher's job, but, frankly, I'd rather teach any sort of writing than try to convince someone that, for example, describing an abortion is not the same as advocating abortion. (The last literature I taught was Maxine Hong Kingston's 'No-Name Woman' which led to the above discussion. Never again, I vowed.)

laura k said...

I liked (not loved) Affliction, and disliked The Sweet Hereafter, but will give it another chance - it could have been bad timing.

The way I feel about Rule of the Bone and Cloudsplitter, though, more than outweigh those. So love both those books.

I can see that re Carolyn Chute. I read Beans of Egypt, Maine and Letourneau's Used Auto Parts so long ago. I only remember the general shape of the books. I'm very interested in her later works, more political curiosity than literary, though! Haven't gotten to them yet.

laura k said...

Swanville is a suburb of Belfast, Maine, so the documentary was both very familiar visually, but also it was startling to see the familiar as sieved through Wiseman's sensibility and world view.

My wife is in one scene--her only stab at showbiz!


Wow, very cool - all of it!