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.
I hated teaching literature, as opposed to teaching writing, but one year I gave Russell Banks's 'Trailer Park' a spin with my community college students. I wish they could have seen it and admired it the way I saw it, but, of course, slavishness wasn't what I wanted from students in a lit course or any course.
The cultural distance between me and my class never seemed greater, and I never tried that experiment again.
That's especially interesting, given what Banks said about the people he wrote about vs the people who read him. This was emblematic of that divide.
The people he wrote about (my students in this case) found him upsetting. They all knew Banksian people--acquaintances, neighbors, friends, and relatives--and were full of advice for how they might have better lived their lives. It was pretty damn impossible to dig them out of those rabbit holes once they got down there.
A lot of what bothered them was marginal differences that seemed huge to them but trivial to me. The kind of difference I mean could be exemplified in the Banksian crucible of my daughter's rural school's lunchroom back in the 70s. Kids would monitor each other's brown bag lunches and build class hierarchies based on what foods their moms packed. I don't see much difference between peanut butter and baloney, but they sure did.
John, I know exactly what you mean. I had this happen in my teen book club when the characters in the book were the same types as the folks at the table.
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