Thursday, January 12, 2023

Russell Banks And The Frozen North

Author Russell Banks at his Saratoga Springs residence in 2008. Photo by Cindy Schultz, courtesy of the Times Union

The news of Russell Banks’s death reached me through a text from a friend. I then read his obituary in The New York Times. I knew  Russell Banks a little bit, but I had been a fan of his books since the 1980s when I was living in New York City, and a friend lent me a review copy of Continental Drift. I was blown away by the book but could not finish it before leaving for a trip west. I remember finding Continental Drift in a bookstore in Boston a few months later and read the last few chapters there. Continental Drift was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction but lost to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

In Continental Drift, worlds collide. Chapters alternate between a family that leaves northern New Hampshire for Florida and another family that leaves Haiti and travels to reach America in south Florida. Both families are trying to escape poverty. Both have harrowing, tragic journeys. The book is minutely crafted with well-formed characters who are alternately powerless or completely in control of their bad choices. At its core, Continental Drift is about race in America, with white characters who are unaware, unconcerned, and never confront their complicity in an unequal society or their implicit racism. Race in America was a consistent theme in Banks’s work, along with class and place. The land in his novels, whether New Hampshire, the Adirondacks, Florida, or Jamaica, was richly rendered. It seemed like there was always a passage on the geologic history of the places in his novels.

Among many other things, for me, Banks was a writer of the frozen north. His stories rendered how the hard and frozen landscape of northern New England and the Adirondacks, what’s come to be called the Northern Forest, shaped the people who lived there. More than anything, the long winters and unrelenting cold scoured the souls of the region’s inhabitants.

Wanting more after Continental Drift, I found his early novel Hamilton Stark and Success Stories, a collection of short stories. The character Hamilton Stark is a conservative’s conservative who violently and abusively makes his way through life. In college, I wrote a history of American agriculture policy for an independent study and, as part of that, was immersed for a spell in the writings of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Ag Secretary Ezra Taft Benson (his advice to farmers was to “get big or get out”). In the novel, Hamilton Stark journeys to Au Sable Forks from New Hampshire, from one broken landscape to another, to hear a lecture by ET Benson and is the only one to stand and wildly applaud. The evocation of Benson was masterful, and the adoring crazed delusional conservatism of the sociopathic white rural conservative Hamilton Stark was prescient by Banks.

Success Stories renders different characters in different worlds, but Banks’ control of his storytelling and characters blew me away. In one story, a down-and-out young man is given a job by an older man who briefly becomes a mentor to the lost young man. As the young man gets on his feet, he, like many others in the story, takes up with his mentor’s wife. When the mentor confronts the young man, the young man tries to apologize and explain away what happened. The mentor dismisses him, telling him he’s insignificant, simply “an interchangeable part.” Success Stories sought to render the fullness of life in a community, as did Banks’s other works like Trailerpark and The Book of Jamaica, which came earlier.

In the late 1980s, Banks moved to Keene, where he lived and worked off and on as he held positions at different academic institutions. He married the poet Chase Twitchell, who has long roots in the Adirondacks, and they lived on East Hill. I remember chatting with him at the dump a few times in the years I also lived on East Hill as he drove around in a lime green Jaguar, or some such car. Affliction is set in winter in northern New Hampshire and centers on multi-generational alcoholic men and the desperate women entwined with them. It renders complex and brutal scenes. The community is a place where all the good looking and smart people have moved away, where the ones who moved back had failed in the outside world or were oddball artists or craftspeople alone in their own dreamy internal worlds who never fit in, a place where rich people had big vacation homes, and the locals lived in beat-down long-held family homes or trailers. One important character is the doomed protagonist’s brother who had escaped and moved to Boston. In a chase scene where two pickup trucks barrel down a snowy dirt road at night deep in the woods, the drivers end up facing off on the ice of a frozen pond, their headlights blinding each other, as their pickups stood “plowblade to plowblade.”

Affliction was made into a movie in the late 1990s, starring Nick Nolte and the incomparable Sissy Spacek. The movie hewed close to the book in its violence and deprivation, and rawness of the frozen north. Just holding the book in your hands makes you cold.

When I worked at Adirondack Life in the late 1980s, for editor Christopher Shaw, Banks provided us with an excerpt from The Sweet Hereafter to publish in the magazine. Initially when he told us he had something for the magazine we were elated, and floated around the old church office for a day, because we thought it was a major coup to run an excerpt from a new Russell Banks novel. He sent us a draft of the scene of the demolition derby from The Sweet Hereafter. When I read it, I didn’t see its Adirondack connection. Where I mainly had grown up in central New York, every county fair ended the night with a demolition derby, a car race where cars smash each other and the last car moving wins, but the piece didn’t strike me as an Adirondack thing. When the book came out, I saw how central that scene was to the story.

The Sweet Hereafter is a tragic story of how a small rural community agonizes in the wake of a school bus accident where local children are killed. Banks had lost a sibling when he was a child and he said that his mother never recovered and marked time as before or after his sibling’s death. There are buildings, roads, and characters in The Sweet Hereafter that are pure Keene, though it’s set in a fictional Adirondack town. He said at one reading I attended that he envisioned a place like the Cascade Pass as the accident scene. The book was also made into a movie, which people still rave about, though I always found the movie’s pageantry around the sexual abuse scenes, which was very different from the novel’s rendering, as creepy.

I remember a conversation in the early 2000s when I was working with a group of people on the Northern Forest Center’s Wealth Index for the region. The conversation was around language to describe North Forest communities. Language proposed said things like “warm,” “welcoming,” “open,” and “friendly” communities, and I laughed and blurted out “Have you all ever read a Russell Banks novel?”

Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter were published in 1989 and 1991, but it took Banks years to complete his next two novels. The Rule of the Bone came out in the mid-1990s and his masterpiece Cloudsplitter came out in the late 1990s. Both are set in part in the Adirondacks. Cloudsplitter is a novel about the abolitionist John Brown. Banks had been a member of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks (RCPA) for years, and in the early 2000s he did a benefit reading from Cloudsplitter for us. In the Q&A afterward, he said that living in John Brown’s head had been tormenting for him and that he stopped working on the book and wrote The Rule of the Bone as a reprieve before finishing Cloudsplitter.

The Rule of the Bone partly follows a Huck-Finn-like odyssey that takes a runaway boy from Plattsburgh who calls himself Bone to the Adirondacks and Jamaica. Like Huck and escaped slave Jim on their raft in the Mississippi River, Bone travels with an older black Jamaican man called I-Man. For part of the book, Bone and another boy squirrel away in an unoccupied 2nd home in Keene. The caretaker is an uncle to Bone’s accomplice, who like some caretakers, drives up to the empty house in his truck, looks around, never gets out, and drives away. The boys eat and drink everything they can find in the house, and after they burn all firewood they can find, they start burning the furniture, starting, they say, with the cheap and old stuff, the furniture made of branches and twigs.

Cloudsplitter is Banks’s other masterwork, along with Continental Drift. Cloudsplitter was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize but lost to The Hours by Michael Cunningham. The John Brown evoked by Banks was done with the historic megalomania, devout Calvinism, righteousness, violence, and contradictions that history tells us about him. The novel is told through the eyes of Brown’s son, Owen, who survived the Harpers Ferry raid, and escaped back north. From the death squad violence in Kansas where Brown hacked men to death with a broad sword to walking with his family on the rutted toll roads to reach North Elba, this is both an epic American journey and an Adirondack story.

His later novels used the Adirondacks as a backdrop, like The Reserve, where he skewers life at the Au Sable Club. The Darling focuses on a character unable to resist a series of bad choices leading, of course, to bad outcomes, with little self-awareness gained. I have not read Banks’s last two novels, Foregone or The Magical Kingdom.

For me, Banks was more than a great storyteller, but a truth teller, telling truths about the American experience, truths about life in the frozen north. The characters from his books, their circumstances, their histories, the things they said, the things they did, have been guides in my Adirondack experience to the ways of the frozen north. The many narratives composed by Russell Banks provide an indispensable window into American life.

Photo: Author Russell Banks at his Saratoga Springs residence in 2008. Photo by Cindy Schultz, courtesy of the Times Union

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

7 Responses

  1. Steve Stofelano Jr says:

    Thank you Peter for this remembrance, I was a fan of his writing as well!
    And thank you for visiting Wells recently!

  2. Joel Rosenbaum says:

    Thanks Peter Bauer for the book reviews. I haven’t read Russell Bank’s books, but
    I will now after reading your marvelous review.
    Joel Rosenbaum
    Branford, Ct.

  3. William Chamberlain says:

    Thanks, Peter, for the thoughtful and informative post. I started with Magic Kingdom and am working my way backwards. Been a great pleasure so far. Feel you’re in good hands reading Russell Banks.
    The other cool thing is he could’ve lived anywhere on the planet but the Adirondacks are among the places he chose.
    Fun to think about.
    He will be here in spirit for centuries to come…

  4. Vanessa B says:

    RIP to an American great 💔. I first read him at Skidmore and haved picked up several other works since. I always thought Cloudsplitter was simultaneously a true work of art, but harsh on the Old Man. I have meant to get around to Contential Drift for years.

    81 is young for an author – tragic that we have been robbed of many more years of work, if he had wanted.

  5. Ellen Percy Kraly says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful, insightful remembrance.

  6. Ginger Henry Kuenzel says:

    This is one of the best and most moving tributes I’ve ever read. I just recently finished Cloudsplitter and am in awe of Russell Banks’ writing and relating of history. I plan to read some of his other books now. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  7. David Miller says:

    This was a wonderful tribute to Russell Banks as well as a guide to his works. Thank you for writing this.

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