A Village Voice writer once called Russell Banks “the most important living white male American on the official literary map.” Flattering, but as Banks sees it, a bit off the mark.
“As a writer I don't have a nationality,” he says. “As a writer I don't have a race. As a writer I don't have a gender.”
Banks may have made his reputation portraying disenfranchised, white, working-class American males—think Wade Whitehouse in Affliction, Bob Dubois in Continental Drift or, the adolescent equivalent, Chappie in Rule of the Bone—but his range is broader than that, expansive enough to include protagonists such as the Haitian mother Vanise (Continental Drift, 1985), Hannah Musgrave, a '70s American radical in Liberia (The Darling, 2004) and the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown (Cloudsplitter, 1998).
When I visit the 67-year-old writer on a fall afternoon in his home in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, he is wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and a fleece vest. With his close-cropped gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he looks every bit the white American male. But he resists thinking of himself that way, he says, because “then I would only be able to write about living, white American men and I would rather not limit myself that way.”
All this creative openness has its price. “It isn't sitting in a room alone that makes me feel alone—lots of people work in their room all day long, or a cubicle,” he says, lighting one of several cigarettes he will smoke during our conversation. “It's the inability to identify wholly with any particular group, even my family ultimately.”
That sense of split allegiances is at the heart of Banks's work and never more explicitly than in his latest novel, The Reserve (HarperCollins). Banks sets the story in 1936, going against type by focusing primarily not on people struggling to survive the Great Depression but on the wealthy who used the Adirondacks as their summer playground.
“I think, as a novelist, it's important to try to write about people you might have a problem feeling sympathetic toward. And in the process of the writing learn to have that sympathy,” he says, as we talk in the old maple sugar shack that Banks has converted into a writing studio. Years ago, he had the shack picked up and moved yards away from a long gravel drive that leads to the house he shares with his fourth wife, the poet and editor Chase Twichell, in the village of Keene. Banks's four daughters are grown and out of the house. The couple, married since 1989, live with two black and white border collies on a 60-acre parcel of land.
No Simple Answer
The Reserve revolves around the painter Jordan Groves, a fictional stand-in for the real-life American artist, leftist and adventurer Rockwell Kent. In the early 20th century, vast areas of the land were owned by private clubs catering to wealthy outsiders who spent their summers enjoying the pristine wilderness while living in luxurious vacation homes. In this, his 15th book, Banks wanted to explore the tension between the summer people and the locals who had little choice but to make their living serving them. “They created a kind of two-tiered structure or system that still exits here to some degree,” Banks says.
Speaking of the present day, he continues, “Conservation is supported by those people from outside. The local people, they're not against conservation, but they're poor. All they have is their land and they can't develop it, they can't sell it.”
In the novel, Groves finds that his loyalties are split between the two groups. His political convictions dictate a certain disdain for the ruling class. But the masses don't buy a lot of original paintings. And thanks to wealthy art collectors, Groves is himself affluent. It is a not-so-subtle parallel to Banks's own situation, in which he is torn between identifying with the preservationist ethics of the outsiders and sympathizing with the local working people. “There's no simple answer for me and in some ways I guess the novel dramatizes that,” he says.
Banks, who grew up in working-class towns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the son of a violent, hard-drinking man, may be comfortable going down to the local bar to watch a baseball game. But he knows he's not really one of the working men he's sitting next to. He belongs to the Ausable Club and owns homes in Miami Beach and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Hollywood has adapted his books, including Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, into films. He has a working relationship with Martin Scorsese, who is producing the film version of Cloudsplitter and plans to direct an adaptation of The Darling. Banks wrote the screenplays for both.
As Told from Above
Banks fans used to the grittiness and sometimes painfully intimate tone of his writing may be surprised by The Reserve. It is more ironic, Banks acknowledges, more like a fable than his previous books. The dialogue, in particular between men and women, evokes the detached, flirtatious sparring of a Thin Man movie.
Also, Jordan Groves is an amateur pilot, a device that Banks puts to use literally—much of the action is observed from the plane—and metaphorically, with the omniscient narrator keeping his distance from the characters. “I was really trying to see this world from above, as if I was hovering over it,” he says.
Whether it worked, says Banks, he won't really know for another 10 or 15 years. “There's a sense in which a book is never really published until it's entered the culture and become part of the intellectual context of other people,” he says. “That rarely happens and when it does happen, it takes years.” Asked which of his books have achieved that status, Banks mentions the 1985 novel Continental Drift.
With its troubled 14-year-old protagonist, Rule of the Bone has also enjoyed enduring popularity among teenagers, who show up at Banks's readings with well-worn copies for him to sign. “The music and the diction are out of style. There isn't a single cellphone in Rule of the Bone, there isn't a single iPod in Rule of the Bone,” Banks says. “It's dated in some ways, yet it's read by kids today.”
After we've talked for a couple of hours, Banks puts on a Boston Red Sox cap, we both put on our coats and we leave the sugar shack to walk up to the house. The two border collies, wearing red and green collars so hunters don't mistake them for deer, follow us. On the other side of the gravel drive, there's a massive hole ringed by mounds of dirt. They're having a pond put in to attract more wildlife, Banks explains.
We stop in for a few minutes at a lower-floor office that serves as the headquarters of the Ausable Press, a nonprofit poetry publisher that Twichell founded and runs. She has work to finish, so Banks and I walk up some outside steps that lead to the living room.
In a while, she will join us for drinks. We'll talk about a lot of things; Banks will wonder aloud how he should be using the Internet to promote his writing, Twichell will tell me about a talented young poet whose work got its edge blunted by an M.F.A. program. First, though, I take in the view from the house. The light is dying, but the Adirondacks still loom large. I recognize the scene—I'd pictured it while reading The Reserve.