cover image The Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom

Russell Banks. Knopf, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-53516-5

Banks’s heartbreaking latest (after Foregone) delves into the history of a Shaker community in Florida through one man’s tragic story. In a metafictional frame, Banks describes finding in a public library a trove of reel-to-reel tapes, on which Harley Mann recounts his years as a teenager growing up in the remote New Bethany Shaker colony. What follows are Banks’s transcriptions of the recordings, which Harley made in 1971 when he was 81. After Harley’s father dies, Harley and his family move from their faltering utopian socialist community to New Bethany, and though he doesn’t immediately buy into the Shaker beliefs, he accepts the mentorship of John Bennett, the Shaker elder who sponsored them. However, when Harley develops an obsession with Sadie Pratt, whom he believes is playing him romantically against John, the stage is set for a devastating reckoning that undermines the colony’s survival. Looking back, Harley reflects bitterly on the acquisition of the community’s land by Walt Disney and the theme park’s discriminatory labor policies, which ran counter to the Shakers’ philosophy of inclusiveness. Though Harley’s tale is deeply personal, Banks artfully presents it on a larger scale, showing how it fits in a centuries-long pattern of settlers who came to Florida seeking a better life only to find, in Harley’s words, “It’s where you go when your prospects elsewhere have ended, and you’ve not yet settled into despair.” Banks’s penetrating dissection of the American dream and its frequently unfulfilled promises is consistently profound. This is his best work in some time. (Nov.)