Banks wrote about very ordinary people, always working-class, often marginalized and powerless. Although his egalitarian worldview was always obvious to me, he never used his characters as billboards or soapboxes. This excerpt from Banks' obituary in The New York Times is very apt.
In much of Mr. Banks’s writing, his concerns about race, class and power repeatedly surfaced, with particular attention given to the powerless and the overlooked, especially his outwardly unremarkable blue-collar characters.
“There’s an important tradition in American writing, going back to Mark Twain and forward to Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, whose work is generated by love of people who are scorned and derided,” Mr. Banks told The Guardian in 2000. “I have an almost simple-minded affection for them. My readers are not the same as my characters, as I’m very aware. So I’m glad when they feel that affection too.”
I was turned on to Russell Banks by one of my nephews, back in the 1990s: he told me about Rule of the Bone, Banks' take on the classic theme of a personal struggle between two father figures. I loved the authentic voice of the teenage narrator, and the pointed echoes to the ultimate alternative-father story, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read Rule of the Bone decades ago and can still recall scenes and images from it.
Banks' masterpiece is Cloudsplitter, his massive and powerful novel about the radical abolitionist John Brown. This book, along with the PBS "American Experience" documentary, in which Banks was featured, gave me an enduring fascination with Brown. (I was always sorry that I didn't know about the John Brown historic site, all the many times we drove upstate New York and to Vermont.)
I also loved these books by Banks: Continental Drift (1985), Affliction (1989), and especially Lost Memory of Skin (2011). I haven't read all of Banks' novels, and haven't read any of his nonfiction, but I think I will eventually fill in the gaps. I'm sorry we won't have anything new from Banks. I hope he knew how much his readers loved him.