“I guess I just like the extremes,” Russell Banks told The New York Times in 2011. “Not the middle.” The remark refers both to geography and to the margins at which his characters always seem to find themselves, usually through no fault of their own. Banks’s new story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, considers the nature of family, veering between upstate New York (the setting of many of his acclaimed novels, including The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction) and South Florida (setting of his most recent, Lost Memory of Skin, which New York Times book critic Janet Maslin called “a major work destined to be a canonical novel of its time”). Filled with trademark compassion, sensitivity to human emotion, and subtle beauty, A Permanent Member of the Family is a delicately crafted collection that raises powerful and lingering questions about the nature of human connection in our fractured, fragmented time.
While this theme resonates throughout, the characters and conflicts diverge dramatically from story to story, demonstrating Banks’s gift for drawing out the universal struggles of contemporary American life. “Former Marine” tells the tragic tale of Connie, an aging father driven to extreme measures by the recession and the bursting of the real-estate bubble. The story limns the helplessness and humiliation experienced by decent people who did everything right and still ended up ruined by circumstances beyond their control. “It’s the economy’s fault. And the fault of whoever the hell’s in charge of it,” Connie thinks wearily, echoing the despair of so many who found themselves not only imperiled but disgraced by similar financial reversals. Connie’s proud need to hold onto his status, not only as a self-sufficient man but also as the family provider, drives him to a reckless choice whose ending is both tragic and predictable.
In the title story, the end similarly seems a foregone conclusion. The initially polite dissolution of a family becomes fraught with sorrow and acrimony when the family dog refuses to remain at the home he has been assigned to in the aftermath of divorce. “No one blamed Sarge, of course, for rejecting joint custody and thereby breaking up our family,” the narrator says. “Not consciously, anyhow. In fact, back then, at the beginning of the breakup of the family, none of us knew how much we depended on Sarge to preserve our ignorance of the fragility, the very impermanence, of the family. None of us knew that she was helping us postpone our anger and need for blame—blame for the separation and divorce, for the destruction of the family unit, for our lost innocence.”
Not all of these stories dwell in such dark places—the darkly comic “Big Dog,” for instance, revolves around a dinner party where a visual artist announces to his friends that he has just won a MacArthur “genius” grant, only to have his excitement spoiled by the bitter jealousy of an unpublished novelist. But Banks is at his best when forcing readers into the places they don’t want to go. In “Christmas Party,” a cuckolded man attends the housewarming of his ex-wife and her new husband. He’s hoping to demonstrate his own magnanimity but finds himself crushed by the sight of the better, happier life his ex-wife has found with another. In the haunting “Searching for Veronica,” Banks describes a conversation between a traveler in an airport bar and an aging Wendy’s clerk, who narrates a dubious but gripping tale of a waif she once attempted to rescue from the deadly vortex of meth addiction. In “Transplant,” a man receives a heart transplant and is visited by the donor’s widow, who makes a startling and heartbreaking request.
Throughout A Permanent Member of the Family, Banks amply displays his remarkable capacity for empathy and understanding, even for the most woe-begotten characters. His great subject is the lives of the forgotten, calling to mind the words of another New York writer: “Happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay,” wrote Herman Melville. “But misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.” In these stories, Banks reminds us—sometimes painfully—of the sorrow lurking in the shadows at the edges of life, where the light will never reach. In doing so, he also forces us to look at what we so often hide from ourselves—and to understand just how easily we too might slip away into those same shadows.
Russell Banks will discuss A Permanent Member of the Family at Parnassus Books in Nashville on November 14, 2013, at 6:30 p.m. as part of the “Wine with the Author” series. The event, co-hosted by the Wine Shoppe at Green Hills, is free and open to the public.