White trash made good

Now a best-selling novelist, Russell Banks still pays tribute to his working-class roots.

By BEN NAPARSTEK
May 7, 2008 13:46
White trash made good

the reserve 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The Reserve By Russell Banks Harper 304 pages; $24.95 In New York's fabled Algonquin Hotel, where literary giants traded gossip in the early half of the last century, Russell Banks is drinking red wine. Leftist writers like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos - name-checked in Banks's new Depression-era novel The Reserve - mixed in affluent circles far from the working-class sympathies of their fiction. "Insofar as they were financially successful and famous, they found themselves associating with a very different class to the people they came from or wrote about," Banks says. "It's also true of me." A thickset man of 68, with close-cropped hair and a white beard, Banks resembles Hemingway physically as well as politically. He's best known for two novels that became Oscar-buzzed films - Affliction (1989), about a small-town cop driven to a violent showdown with his abusive father, and The Sweet Hereafter (1991), a portrait of a hardscrabble community that loses 14 children in a schoolbus accident. His 2004 novel The Darling is being made into a film by Martin Scorsese, starring Cate Blanchett as a fugitive Weather Underground activist who becomes embroiled in the Liberian civil war. He is, in short, a fixture of the American literary and film firmaments. Yet Banks, who will be here next week for the International Writers Festival, was raised in an impoverished New Hampshire backwater, and his 11 novels are fired by a commitment to the lower classes. His measured tones betray nothing of his violence as a younger man - violence he stopped inflicting physically on others in his early 20s, but that manifested as internal rage until his 30s. He suspects if he hadn't become a writer he would have faced a life of petty crime and barroom brawling - repeating the pattern of alcoholism and abuse that Banks's plumber father, Earl, inherited from his own father. Banks's left eyelid droops slightly from a blow inflicted by Earl when he was two. He doesn't remember seeing his father sober after Earl abandoned the family when Banks was 12. His mother, Florence, was a bookkeeper and also a heavy drinker - a beautiful but emotionally unstable narcissist. The oldest of four siblings, Banks became a surrogate father. "I did the weekly and the monthly budget and organized the children. I had to chase my father down to get the child support he wasn't paying. I didn't really have a childhood after about the age of 10." Banks stole a car at 16, spending three months on the road before the police caught up with him in Los Angeles. His experiences of adolescent homelessness fed into his portrayal of Chappie, a drug-abusing school dropout, who narrates Rule of the Bone (1995). "I was a turbulent and angry kid, so it wasn't hard for me to get into his head. He's a seeker, a boy on a quest, and he wants to be decent and good." While Banks's trajectory is a classic story of white trash made good, his novels are skeptical about the American Dream. His characters often try to make clean starts, only to find themselves imprisoned by economic circumstances and reenacting their damaged pasts. At 18, Banks won a scholarship for underprivileged students to Colgate University, but felt so out of place among the offspring of captains of industry that he dropped out after eight weeks. "I wasn't emotionally mature enough to handle that kind of difference I was made to feel." He hightailed it to Miami, hoping to travel on to Cuba to enlist with Fidel Castro's insurgents. "My politics, love of the underdog - everything could be easily transferred to Castro and his men." Without enough money to get to Cuba, Banks stayed in Florida, where he worked as a mannequin-dresser in a department store. "I ended up working and living for the first time in a segregated society. Florida had an apartheid established. I was poor enough that I could see." By 19, Banks was married, and had a daughter, Lea, the following year. But at 21, like his father before him, he deserted his family. "Of the few things I regret, that's one of them. But I hadn't a clue. I was stuck with a job I was not capable of performing." Lea reentered Banks's life in her mid-teens after she fell out with her mother - just as Banks was reunited with his father when he returned to New Hampshire, at various points, to work alongside Earl as a plumber and pipe-fitter. Banks married again at 23, to a southerner with whom he had three more daughters. The couple moved to Chapel Hill, where Banks attended the University of North Carolina - the only southern university of its caliber that was racially integrated and co-ed. Immediately swept up in anti-segregation demonstrations, he was jailed a day after arriving in the city. "What am I going to do? Drive by and wave? No, you end up picking up a sign and walking along with it." He explains his involvement with the civil rights movement as "a displacement of anger from my own personal and familial dynamic onto a political context. But it was also a way of expressing that big, romantic identification with the underdog - the early longing to run off and join Castro - and giving it a more coherent and useful shape." WHEN JACK Kerouac, then 45, passed through Chapel Hill, Banks hosted a party for the Beat writer at his home that lasted a week. "He was a hero for many of us, and here he was slightly mad and certainly physically ill, alcoholic and dying. Every now and then, he'd have great presence and great memory and articulation - then the next minute he'd be spewing this anti-Semitic, racist stuff." The Beats inspired him - not their writing, but their rebelliousness. "The 1950s was a very buttoned-up time in the US - sexually repressed, socially conformist, politically still under the cloud of McCarthyism. And here came these free-wheeling spirits, breaking down all those barriers." Banks has written a screenplay of Kerouac's On the Road, for a film to be directed by Walter Salles (of The Motorcycle Diaries fame). He sees On the Road as a story of the loss of American innocence, rather than merely the defining novel of the Beat Generation. "It's set in 1948, which we often forget because it wasn't published until 1957. It's a postwar novel." At 33, Banks stopped working in blue-collar jobs, finally able to support himself through teaching and writing. Writing wasn't cathartic, he says, but the rigor helped stabilize him. "It could have been Zen Buddhism or psychoanalysis. Any ongoing discipline which required my special attention would have been sufficient." Though indifferent to his writing career, Earl was proud of his son becoming a professor. "He'd never met a professor in his life. I don't think he read anything of mine ever." Banks recalls his mother visiting him at Princeton, where he taught for 16 years; seeing two bearded, pipe-smoking men dressed in tweeds, Florence said, "Quick, quick, look, Russell. I think they're professors." Banks replied, "Mother, I'm a professor." Banks viewed Earl more sympathetically by his late 20s. "I could begin to see what he had come out of, and how he had tried and failed to be someone other than who he was. He was a right-wing Republican, a man who voted against his self-interest his whole life. But he was very bright. He wasn't literary in any sense, but he had a photographic memory." The outrage at racial discrimination first experienced in Florida remained with Banks, who sees race as "the central story in America - in the American imagination and mythology." A year and a half spent with his family in Jamaica spawned The Book of Jamaica (1980), about a white American professor who travels to Jamaica to complete a novel. "It was very important for me - getting out of the country and looking back. Very few white people were there then. It made me understand much better the whole history of race in the Western hemisphere." Continental Drift (1985) follows an oil-burner repairman from New Hampshire who becomes involved in the plight of a Haitian refugee. In Cloudsplitter (1998), Banks reimagines the life of abolitionist John Brown, whose role in attacking Harpers Ferry in 1859 is sometimes credited with starting the Civil War. "Most African-Americans regard John Brown as a hero of the first magnitude who gave his life to free the slaves, and most white Americans regard him as a terrorist and madman." With Cloudsplitter, Banks's fictional terrain expanded beyond gritty depictions of small-town life to become preoccupied with history. Both The Darling and The Reserve have female protagonists, and Banks says his concerns are no longer exclusively male. "I don't want to do a father-and-son story or a conflicted working guy's life again. I want to explore other mysteries." His next novel will investigate Internet pornography and the Iraq War. HOLLYWOOD WILL surely snaffle film rights to his new novel, The Reserve - a noir thriller set in 1936, which makes nods to flicks like the Bette Davis vehicle The Petrified Forest and James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity. Banks transplants noir conventions from their typical urban setting into the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where he's lived for two decades with his fourth wife, poet Chase Twitchell. The Reserve unfolds over one summer on a private resort for old-moneyed vacationers, revolving around the affair between left-wing artist Jordan Groves and femme fatale Vanessa Cole. The philandering Groves, who resents the plutocratic world that made him famous, was partly modeled on the radical artist and adventurer Rockwell Kent. Vanessa, a beautiful but unstable heiress, was loosely based on one of Hemingway's paramours - a married woman who inspired his 1937 novel To Have and Have Not. Creating Vanessa was technically and emotionally challenging. "Trying to portray a full-blown narcissist in fiction is very difficult. There's no interior to a narcissistic consciousness. Everything is reflected. For her, the question of lying or not lying, truth or falsehood, is nonexistent; you can't be a liar unless you know what the truth is. It was a little scary." Scary, perhaps, because of how Vanessa recalls his description of his own mother? Banks passes on the question. Banks sees the novel's backdrop of rising European fascism as eerily topical. "In 1936, very few Americans were conscious of its implications. There was considerable support for Franco and Mussolini and Hitler. Now in the United States, it's a different kind of fascism, but, in a similar way, very few of us are aware of it." The social stratification described in The Reserve persists in the Adirondacks today. The locals, sometimes living in trailers, often scramble to make ends meet; the wealthy outsiders visit for their summer holidays before returning home, leaving widespread joblessness in their wake. Unemployment in the winter is 20 percent. After emptying his second wineglass, he gets up to leave. And Banks - man of the people and literary titan - leaves the historic haunt of intellectual New York's great and good to return to his hotel room to watch the football.

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