A Permanent Member of the Family – Russell Banks

book coverGiven the unsettled nature of the families in Russell Banks’ dozen stories, the title of his sixth short story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, might have a bit of an ironic aroma to it. Marriage is, if anything, impermanent here. The title character in Former Marine had to raise his boys alone after their mother took off. Philandering, while not depicted, is noted as causative in the demise of several other relationships in the collection. And even when a marriage has not dissolved, it is often shown to be or to have been threadbare. There are a few stories where things marital are not seen, Blue, The Invisible Parrot, but the tendency is to the sorry state of home and hearth. It is not surprising that marriage has such a central place in the author’s work. His current marriage is his fourth.

all of us were fissioned atoms spun off nuclear families, seeking new, recombinant nuclei

Lines are drawn, and crossed. They separate before from after, denial from acceptance, uncertainty from realization. In Christmas Party, for example, a man is invited to the home of his ex and her husband for a party, and his underlying humiliation and rage must find an outlet before he can cross over from before to after. A singular event in the title story defines the place where the stretching of connections snaps.

book cover

Russell Banks – from Wikimedia

The characters here often face moral choices, a favorite concern of Banks. Faced with financial stress in his old age, a Former Marine must make difficult decisions in order to be able to continue providing for his children, and later, in order to protect them. In Lost and Found, a businessman at a convention is confronted with the time when he brought a woman who was not his wife to his hotel room, and the decision he faced then. In Searching for Veronica, a woman confronts the guilt she felt for turning out of her home someone who was at great risk in the larger world. The choices are never black and white.

Banks sets his stories largely in the upstate New York town of Keene, his current residence, near Lake Placid, and Florida, his other current residence, so his descriptions of place ring with authenticity. He has a background as a politically concerned sort (he tried joining Castro’s revolution, despite not knowing how to speak Spanish, but got no farther than Florida) and his appreciation for the struggles faced by working people is never far. He had a working class upbringing himself.

I think I inevitably end up feeling a special kind of sympathy for people whose lives are shaped and controlled and manipulated by people with more power than them. – from Harpers article

It is also pretty clear that he holds a less than fond opinion of the media, whether the whores are the media professionals or those who would use them to personal ends, as shown in Blue.

Banks has achieved a status as one of the top writers of his generation, with a dozen novels to his credit, including Continental Drift, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter and Lost Memory of Skin. A Permanent Member of the Family is his sixth collection of short stories. I found these tales to be extremely well told. There are ironic twists, as every writer of short stories must have at least a bit of O Henry DNA floating about. Banks won an O Henry award for his short story collection Searching for Survivors. A few did not grab me, seeming somewhat obscure commentary on writing per se, but most presented relatable characters confronting real-world choices, or repercussions. Banks has a gift for detail, without cluttering the place up with too much. His style is straight ahead story-telling with less of the lyrical description some other writers employ.

The work of a seasoned pro, A Permanent Member of the Family merits at least a temporary place with yours.

===============================THE STORIES
Former Marine
Faced with the loss of his business and a need to support himself and help out his three sons, who far too conveniently are all in police work, a man takes to a life of crime.

A Permanent Member of the Family
A family pet does not go along with a splitting couple’s custody arrangements. An event regarding the pet defines where one family situation ends and another begins

Christmas Party
A man is invited to the Christmas party thrown by his ex and her husband, who are living the life he had hoped for. What to do with the rage? How to move on?

Transplant
A recent heart transplant recipient is approached by the widow of the man whose heart he received, wanting to hear it beat one last time. The heart may replace the one that stopped working, but cannot truly replace the one that was broken.

Snowbirds
While snowbirding in Florida, a woman’s husband dies. Instead of grief, she appears to feel liberated. And when a friend offers to come help her with arrangements she finds something more.

Big Dog
Seems like it would be a cause for celebration when a sculptor is awarded a Macarthur Fellowship, but his wife and friends seem more resentful than anything else.

Blue
After saving for years to be able to by a car of her own, a black woman in Florida finds herself accidentally trapped in a used car lot after hours, beset by a watchful pit bull.

The Invisible Parrot
A young man in a local store tries to imagine the experience of others there, but imagination is not quite enough. Is this the writer wondering about the ability of writers to imagine the experience of others?

The Outer Banks
A retired couple’s dog has passed away while they are RV’ing about the country. They stop at a beach in North Carolina to bury it.

Lost and Found
A man meets a woman he had almost slept with at a conference years before. He looks back on that decision.

Searching for Veronica
A woman is fearful that a person she tossed out of her house some years back has come to a bad end.

The Green Door
A questionable character in a bar is looking for a place where he can get unusual entertainment. The bar tender directs him, but faces another decision about helping or not helping the man later.

Review posted on GR – 12/29/13

==============================EXTRA STUFF

From December 12, 2012 Harpers – A Conversation with Russell Banks – by Jesse Barron

A wide-ranging interview in the Paris Review

A critical review of his work up to 2001

Banks reads his story “The Moor” on This American Life in 2000 – 19 minutes long, from the 40 minute mark in the program

A New York Times interview with Banks – 1/2/04 – Russell Banks – By the Book

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

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