About four years ago, a Dutch documentary crew showed up at Russell Banks’s home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The writer sat in a chair in his living room while the crew blocked out every source of light. When the room was nearly pitch-black, they illuminated their subject with an overhead spotlight and began asking questions.
Banks recalls the interview fondly—perhaps because the idea of letting strangers into one’s home now seems fantastical, or more likely because it was the key with which he unlocked Foregone (Ecco, Mar.), his decade-in-the-making new novel. He is stuck in that same house on Christmas Eve 2020, holed up after 36 inches of snow pummeled Saratoga Springs. His Miami condo has stayed maddeningly empty while he and his wife, the poet Chase Twichell, wait out the pandemic.
Long acclaimed for his nuanced, rich portraits of ordinary lives and people, Banks, 80, has been an uncommonly prolific author of literary fiction since his 1975 debut, Family Life. The 10-year gap between Foregone and his previous novel, Lost Memory of Skin, marks his longest by far. He wanted to write a book about a subject that’s long fascinated him: young American men who fled to Canada in the late 1960s and early ’70s to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
“I’m Canadian-American myself—my father and three of my grandparents are Canadian born,” he says. “I’ve always felt a closeness to both Canada and the U.S. The idea of these young men, my age they’d be, going there and making a life there, and yet never really being Canadian—it’s an interesting concept.”
Banks, who was an active member of the antiwar movement in the 1960s, couldn’t find his way in to the novel, however. Then the filmmaking crew showed up. And he lived through his late 70s, during which time he says he “lost a number of close, lifelong friends” and began more deeply considering his own mortality, and in turn, his own life.
Foregone centers on Leo Fife, a 79-year-old filmmaker dying of cancer, sitting in a wheelchair for an on-camera interview before a group of former students. “A small, sharply cut circle of light appears on the bare wooden floor,” Banks writes. “It’s where Fife will be interrogated.”
The students believe Leo will reflect on his distinguished career; Leo’s actual intention, in a sort of whimsically Beckettian fashion, is simply to “talk and talk and talk,” as Banks says. “He’s trying to recapitulate his life for himself and for the woman he’s come to love.” The documentary frame, Banks explains, allowed him to visually “focus our imagination on the speaker.”
So begins a wild journey into a meld of Leo’s memories, fantasies, and delusions—a singularly strange foray into a most turbulent period in North American history. The line between autobiography and fiction blurs. “You’re trying to bring all these things together and reassemble them in a coherent and patterned way, and make out of that a narrative that’s plausible and believable,” Banks says of the experience of confabulation. “I was very aware, as Leo’s life was unfolding, that I was writing a series of experiences that parallel very closely what it’s like to write a novel.”
In addition to sifting through historical records, Banks spoke with acquaintances who were deeply involved in the antiwar movement, as well as those who actually crossed the border as young men. He mined his own memories, too. A theme of abandonment emerges throughout Leo’s recollections: running away from home as a teenager, walking out on his first wife and daughter to pursue writing, leaving his second wife when fleeing to Canada in 1968.
“Abandonment and betrayal—it’s something that I come back to all the time in my books,” Banks says. “But I’ve always wanted to try to look at it from the other side, from the side of the person who actually commits acts of abandonment and betrayal, and try to penetrate and understand that.”
That’s where the moral intricacy that Banks so confidently, consistently trades in comes into play. He unearths the tensions between antiwar Americans who stayed put and those who left the movement behind. “That was an intriguing aspect of the story I didn’t know beforehand,” he says, calling it the most surprising discovery of his research.
One evocative scene from Foregone recreates a Joan Baez concert in Toronto. Despite her noted opposition to the Vietnam War, she denounces the Americans who fled, to their great shock and dismay. “I found that really touching,” Banks says. “Here they’re in deep, profound agreement that the war was criminal, had to be opposed in every possible way, and yet there were a significant number of Americans who thought of them as cowardly.” Other notables of the era, like Bob Dylan, figure into the novel, too, further contributing to the thorny human conflicts at its heart.
Banks completed Foregone in December 2019 and, inevitably, has reconsidered its resonance in the year since, with Covid-19 forcing tough reflection. “It’s brought an awful lot of us, most everyone I know, closer to mortality, to death, to its presence and its threat, than ever before in our time,” he says. “The book does that, too. I expect that any reader will go, ‘Oh boy, do I really want to read a novel about an old man dying of cancer at this time?’ ”
Banks pauses for a moment, as if weighing the question himself. “But on the other hand, maybe we do.”
In any case, Banks could have only written Foregone at this point in his life. He was the same age as Leo when he finished writing. “As you age,” he confesses, “naturally, the unavoidable subject is death and dying.”
Yet the book will also be published in the 30th anniversary year of one of Banks’s most celebrated novels, The Sweet Hereafter, whose confrontation with inexplicable tragedy—in its case, a deadly school bus accident in a small town—has held up bracingly in the wake of horrors ranging from 9/11 to, yes, the ongoing pandemic. (It was adapted into a 1998 Oscar-nominated film by Atom Egoyan, with whom Banks remains friendly. In fact, Egoyan vetted Banks’s Foregone manuscript for mistakes in its descriptions of filmmaking.)
Foregone asks “perennial and deep questions,” Banks says. “I stumbled into them writing The Sweet Hereafter and find that, 30 years later, they’re still very germane.”
Much like Leo, Banks is now looking back, and thinking about what his new book means to him. He’s no longer worrying about process or craft much; he’s mining memory and experience and connection for his fiction, in a kind of thrillingly organic way.
“I’d probably be a terrible teacher now,” the former Princeton professor cracks. “I’m an old athlete. I know where to go on the court. I know where my shot is. And I know where it isn’t.”
David Aaron is a book critic and magazine editor. He lives in Los Angeles.