A Permanent Member of the Family (reviewed on page 32), Russell Banks's new collection of short stories, packs a punch. In one story, a man attends a party only to witness his ex-wife and her new husband living the life he had always imagined; in another, a heart recipient finds his renewed optimism for life threatened by the heart donor's widow.
Banks rose to the first rank of American novelists in 1985 with the publication of Continental Drift, about a repairman from New Hampshire and a Haitian refugee whose dreams snowball toward disaster. Since then, his 20 books, from Affliction (1989) to The Sweet Hereafter (1991), have followed ordinary lives as they struggle with violence, poverty, isolation, and tragedy.
Though Banks's characters and locales differ-from the decaying mill towns of New England to the beauty of the Florida Keys, Haiti, and Jamaica-his works are linked by the terrible paradoxes inherent in the inability to escape one's life. "Mr. Banks has mapped the dark side of the American dream: the disappointment, even desperation that ensues when ambitions and hopes are thwarted, and dreams slip out of reach," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times (12/9/13). It's not surprising that many of these dreams are hindered by alcoholism, economic hardship, and the wreckage of divorce. "I'm drawn in that direction," Banks told the Washington Independent Review of Books (12/4/13). "I can speculate about why; after all, I come from a family marked by alcoholism for several generations, divorce, abandonment, betrayal and so on. These are experiences that marked my childhood and my youth to a great degree. I think I'm not alone in that experience. It's a common enough experience. And the work is going to reflect that."
With its razor-sharp prose and old-school realism, Banks's fiction mines his own experiences in working-class America and portrays characters with profound humanity and conscience. Born in 1940 to a blue-collar family in Newton, Massachusetts, Banks was raised in New Hampshire. His father deserted the family when Banks was a teenager, which instilled his fiction with a sense of darkness and loss as well as inspiring his focus on father-son relationships. "The relation between fathers and sons was a very important one to me, growing up," he told January magazine (June 2003). "I was the oldest of four; my father was a very strong person, a huge presence in my life, and then a huge absence in my life. ... It also is, after all, one of the maybe four or five at most, central relationships that we all have." Throughout his young adulthood, Banks led a life as a teenage miscreant, a gasoline station attendant, a plumber, a (brief) student at Colgate, a husband and a father, and a window trimmer before he finished his college...