“One of the most difficult things to say to another person is, I hope that you will love me for no good reason. But it is what we all want and rarely dare to say to one another – to our children, to our parents and mates, to our friends, and to strangers. Especially to strangers, who have neither good nor bad reasons to love us. And it’s why we tell each other stories that we pray will be transformed in the telling by that angel on the roof, made believable and about us all, no matter who we are to one another and who we are not.”—American fiction writer Russell Banks (1940-2023), Preface to The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks (2000)
Russell Banks died nearly a month ago, but it may be only now, within the last few days, that I feel truly reminded of the novelist and short-story writer.
The kind of weather we’re experiencing in the Northeast now is not only what he continually brought to withering life in novels like Continental Drift, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, but the kind he grew up with in New England—and it left its impact on his work through characters with withered, even stunted, life prospects, as he told Wesley Brown for a 1989 profile in The New York Times Magazine:
''Growing up in New Hampshire gave me an exaggerated sense of it as a place where the winters were endless, the soil barren and the houses falling down. I also had a pervasive anxiety about money. There was never enough to provide the basics of food, clothing and shelter. And if we got by at all, there was a sense of disaster being over the next horizon.''
It is hard to say at this point how posterity will judge his 21 books—much of it will depend on whether academics (as he was, at Princeton University, when not writing) will assign his works in their classes.
But anyone coming to the books of this nonpareil American realist will come away with a deepened sense of how his characters struggle with the multiple burdens of class, race, and family dysfunction, often ending up in the dead ends of drugs, alcoholism and violence.
Maybe because he identified with these marginalized characters and their backgrounds, he was able to look to look at them squarely and show readers that they really weren’t that different from them.
Though he wrote stories about individuals, this two-time Pulitzer finalist wrote with a particular vision of life in mind, which he shared in Continental Drift:
“We are the planet, fully as much as water, earth, fire and air are the planet, and if the planet survives, it will only be through heroism. Not occasional heroism, a remarkable instance of it here and there, but constant heroism, systematic heroism, heroism as governing principle.”
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