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Russell (Earl) Banks Biography

novel york family life

Nationality: American. Born: Newton, Massachusetts, 29 March 1940. Education: Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, 1958; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1964-67, A.B. 1967 (Phi Beta Kappa). Career: Mannequin dresser, Montgomery Ward, Lakeland, Florida, 1960-61; plumber, New Hampshire, 1962-64; publisher and editor, Lillabulero Press, and co-editor, Lillabulero magazine, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Northwood Narrows, New Hampshire, 1966-75; instructor, Emerson College, Boston, 1968 and 1971, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1968-75, and New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire, 1975 and 1977-81. Since 1981 has taught at New York University and Princeton University, New Jersey. Lives in Princeton. Awards: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1968; St. Lawrence award, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977, 1982; Merrill Foundation award, 1983; Dos Passos prize, 1985; American Academy award, 1986. Agent: Ellen Levine Literary Agency, 432 Park Avenue South, Suite 1205, New York, New York 10016.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Family Life. New York, Avon, 1975.

Hamilton Stark. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

The Book of Jamaica. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

The Relation of My Imprisonment. Washington, D.C., Sun and MoonPress, 1983.

Continental Drift. New York, Harper, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1985.

Affliction. New York, Harper, 1989; London, Picador, 1990.

The Sweet Hereafter: A Novel. New York, HarperCollins, 1991;London, Picador, 1992.

Rule of the Bone. New York, HarperCollins, 1995.

Cloudsplitter. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1998.

Short Stories

Searching for Survivors. New York, Fiction Collective, 1975.

The New World. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Trailerpark. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Success Stories. New York, Harper, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1986.

The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks. New York, HarperCollins, 2000.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Indisposed," in Prime Number, edited by Ann Lowry Weir. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988.

"The Travel Writer," in Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), Summer 1989.

"Xmas," in Antaeus (New York), Spring-Autumn 1990.

Poetry

15 Poems, with William Matthews and Newton Smith. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Lillabulero Press, 1967.

30/6. New York, The Quest, 1969.

Waiting to Freeze. Northwood Narrows, New Hampshire, LillabuleroPress, 1969.

Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter. Hanover, NewHampshire, Granite, 1974.

Other

The Invisible Stranger: The Patten, Maine, Photographs of Arturo Patten (text), photographs by Arturo Patten. New York, HarperCollins, 1999.

Introduction, Gringos and Other Stories by Michael Rumaker. RockyMount, North Carolina, North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1991.

Introduction, A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain. New York, OxfordUniversity Press, 1996.

Contributor, The Autobiographical Eye, edited by Daniel Halpern. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1993.

Editor, with Michael Ondaatje and David Young, Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1989.

* * *

Novelist, poet, and short story writer Russell Banks experienced early in life an abundance of pain, denial, and adventure that would later profoundly influence his writing. In 1989 Banks told interviewer Wesley Brown: "I can see my life as a kind of obsessive return to the 'wound' … Going back again and again trying to get it right, trying to figure out how it happened and who is to blame and who is to forgive." Revisiting past memories is apparent early in Banks's career as is seen in his collections of poetry, including 15 Poems, 30/6, Waiting to Freeze, and Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter. And, although Banks does not consider himself to be much of a poet, these collections are significant because in his poetry we see the presence of the themes he later develops in his short story collections, including Searching for Survivors, Success Stories, and Trailerpark, and in his novels. Banks addresses several recurring issues in these three genres, notably the joys and sorrows of life in New England, race relations in the Caribbean and America, conditions of the working class, American family struggles, and repressed childhood memories.

Family Life, Banks's first novel, is a relatively short text that rejects traditional methods of narration and characterization and attempts instead, in what some consider to be a postmodern move, to make the reader aware of the artifice of writing. In spite of the fragmented story, however, Banks presents a cogent tale that engages the reader. Set in an imaginary kingdom, the novel focuses on the events surrounding King Egress, the Hearty; his wife Naomi Ruth; and their sons, Dread, Orgone, and Egress, Jr. Some critics suggest that Family Life, though about a family in a fantasyland, indicts the contemporary American family. The story's self-centered, displeased parents and children who are drifting through their teen years rather lethargically do, in fact, appear to support this claim. The novel is difficult to categorize, as it might be deemed anything from a fable to a satire, and was called by some critics an "experimental novel," though Banks rejects this label along with others that are sometimes bestowed upon the book.

Banks's second novel, Hamilton Starks, is another text that is concerned with the art of writing, using the story of a character known as "A." (but later called "Hamilton Starks" by the story's main narrator) to track the process of composing a novel. Throughout Hamilton Starks many people construct their own unique and often discordant versions of Starks's character by presenting lengthy monologues, stories-within-stories, and even some their own writings about Starks. Because of these various viewpoints, the story suggests that Starks's life, and perhaps everyone's life, is disconnected and fragmented; there is no inherent "self" to discover or to rely upon.

The "relation" was a genre practiced by imprisoned seventeenth-century Puritans and written to testify to the ways their faith was tested and so strengthened when they were jailed. Banks's third novel, The Relation of My Imprisonment, was modeled after this genre. The novel tells of a coffin maker who is imprisoned for twelve years when he continues his trade after a law has been established prohibiting the work. The prisoner, now considered to be a heretic, narrates his experiences in prison, which include acts of debauchery, obsessive thoughts about food, drink, and money, and even attempts at in-depth self-analysis. The book, some critics suggest, though partly concerned with Puritan Dissenters in England, ultimately confronts the metaphorical imprisonment of contemporary Americans, who, like the narrator, are fragmented and so suffer a loss of self.

As he departs somewhat from the formal experimentation in his first three novels, The Book of Jamaica marks Banks's move toward realism and his intensified preoccupation with class issues. Set in Jamaica, the book tells the story of an American professor, who is left unnamed until he is befriended by the Maroons and then is called "Johnny"—a term of affection they bestow upon him. The novel focuses on the professor's experiences while studying the Maroons, a group descended from slaves, who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries revolted against their British and Spanish owners. "Johnny," who narrates his own tale, is burdened by his systematic style of thinking and believes that his feelings of alienation will be quelled if only he can remake himself and become more like the Jamaicans. However, in spite of his attempts to become like the Jamaicans, "Johnny" realizes that race, economics, and culture ultimately separate America and the Caribbean.

Fostering realism in each chapter, but using metafictional techniques in the novel as a whole, Banks's Continental Drift manages to combine two seemingly dissimilar tales, one of a white working-class American man, Bob DuBois, and one of Vanise Dorsinville, an impoverished black Haitian single mother who attempts to escape to America in order to have a better life. DuBois, an oil-burner repair man living in New Hampshire, realizes his dissatisfaction with his life—"He is alive, but his life has died"—and so decides to pursue the American dream by moving his family to Florida so he can work in his brother's liquor store. Though DuBois's situation appears at first to be rather grim, as his tale is juxtaposed with Vanise's, DuBois's world begins to look as if it is one of wealth and comfort. The two stories in Continental Drift are linked by the suggestion that humanity's movements are similar to the movements in nature—nearly imperceptible, though constantly occurring and ultimately inescapable—and by the description of the drifting quality of life in twentieth century America.

Banks's next three novels, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, and Rule of the Bone, might be thought of as the result of his marked shift away from the postmodern techniques of his early work and toward "gritty" realism. These three novels are similar in terms of style and theme; each uses a first person narrative and each is concerned, at some level, with the traumas of childhood and the American family.

Affliction, made into a movie in 1997 starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, and Willem Dafoe, explores the inner life of Wade Whitehouse and his struggle to escape "the tradition of male violence" and alcoholism in his working-class family. Set in a fictional town in New Hampshire—"a town people sometimes admit to having come from but where almost no one ever goes"—the novel is narrated by Wade's brother Rolfe, who has escaped the family by being its first member to attend college, and who, because he is ultimately implicated in the family's life, becomes preoccupied with interpreting Wade's psyche. Rolfe's narrative, though elevated and insightful, reveals that he too finds it nearly impossible to flee his family's cycle of brutality. Some critics have argued that Rolfe's narrative is clumsy and implausible because there is no way he might know all of Wade's thoughts at any given moment as the story suggests he does. Still, others argue that without Rolfe as mediator, the story would lack psychological intensity because Wade himself could not articulate his own inner feelings as can his brother.

Banks demonstrates the versatility of the first person narrative in The Sweet Hereafter, a novel about a school bus accident that claims the lives of fourteen children in a fictional town in upstate New York, as he presents the story from four unique points of view: Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver responsible for the accident; Billy Ansel, a parent of two children who died in the crash; Mitchell Stephens, a New York City lawyer who believes that "[t]here are no accidents"; and Nichole Burnell, an eighth grader who is left paralyzed after the crash. The novel, ultimately, is concerned with the status of children in America and examines who is to blame, and who is to forgive. Atom Egoyan recently filmed an adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter, which was nominated for two Oscars and won three Cannes Film Festival awards.

Banks's Rule of the Bone has been hailed by some as a contemporary Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye because of its troubled protagonist's first person narrative. Primarily concerned with the events that contribute to fourteen-year-old Chappie Dorset's maturation, the novel includes his encounters with family, politics, religion, money, sex, drugs, and his development of self. Abused by his stepfather, Ken, and "heavy into weed," Chappie runs away from home, takes on a new identity as he renames himself "Bone," and learns several life lessons from an illegal Jamaican alien, I-Man, and an abandoned, abused young child, Rose. Eventually, Bone decides to go to Jamaica with his mentor, I-Man, where he meets his biological father, who, much to Bone's dismay, does not live up to the boy's expectations. Some critics have praised the novel in its entirety, though others have critiqued its chapters set in Jamaica for their improbable events and simplistic moral conclusions. Still, the novel is concerned with criticizing the irrational and selfish world of adults, while it glorifies the endurance of youth. And again, as in Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, Banks critiques the nuclear family.

Banks's most recent novel, Cloudsplitter, is a fictionalized account of Owen Brown, son of John Brown, who led his followers to murder pro-slavery groups in Kansas and claimed to have received orders from God to attack Harper's Ferry in 1859. The book acquaints the reader with several historical figures, including Frederick Douglass and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but its main focus is on Owen's tale of his father's life and its effects on their family. Although this novel, which Banks researched for several years, seems to diverge from his previous subject matter, Banks's main concerns—a son haunted by the memory of his father, the obsessive return to the "wound," family relationships, and racial issues—are apparent in Cloudsplitter.

—Stephannie Gearhart

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