cover image The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter

Russell Banks. Little Brown and Company, $20 (257pp) ISBN 978-0-06-016703-5

With resonating effect, Banks ( Continental Drift ; Affliction ) tackles the provocative subject of a fatal accident involving children, and its effect on a small community. On a frigid, snowy morning in the Adirondacks, veteran school bus driver Dolores Driscoll goes off the road, carrying 14 children to their deaths. Dolores survives; hers is the first and the last narrative voice here. Plainspoken and pragmatic, Dolores and her crippled husband have been longtime residents of the close-knit, economically depressed town of Sam Dents, but the accident makes her an outcast. The flat, almost uninflected voice of Vietnam vet and recent widower Billy Ansel, who witnessed the accident, reflects the numbness he now seeks: both his children died in the crash. Though Banks makes too much of Billy's ``noble'' character, he effectively portrays the man's refuge in drink and his downhill slide. When he introduces the obsessive, enraged voice of New York negligence lawyer Mitchell Stephens, who hopes to manipulate the bereaved into bringing suit against anyone he can find to blame, Banks jolts the narrative into high gear, and uses Stephens's contempt for the grieving parents--their ``sagging porches and rusting pickup trucks''--to render a clear sociological portrait of the community. Beautiful teenager Nicholesp ok? Burnell, crippled as a result of her injuries, takes revenge in her own way, propelling the novel to a moving denouement. Banks handles his dark theme with judicious restraint, empathy and compassion; the result is that this book is less downbeat than his previous works--and more powerful. 30,000 first printing; $45,000 ad/promo. (Sept.)