International Writers Magazine: Fiction Review
Angel On The Roof: The Stories Of Russell Banks
Paperback, 506pp Pub
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
reading The Angel On The Roof: The Stories Of Russell Banks,
his de facto Collected Stories- thirty-one of them, twenty-two
old tales and nine new ones, right after I had finished David
Foster Wallaces Girl With Curious Hair. Thank God!
Banks is everything
that is claimed about Wallace- hes a terrific writer who challenges
the form of short story writing, has depth and insight, and writes well
on a range of people and subjects, although the bulk of the stories
follow a group of people in a small New Hampshire town called Catamount
- many set in a trailer park. Ive not read the longer novels of
Banks, but I shall, some day, as that is what he is primarily known
for, and many critics say he is even better in that form. As it is Banks
is right there with Raymond Carver as one of the best published short
story writers of the last forty years. While I dont think his
best is as good as Carvers, and does not have as many great short
stories, he is far more consistent. The worst tales in the book are
still solid, perhaps too long (ala The Guinea Pig Lady) and/or
a bit unfocused, whereas carvers worst is really bad. Either way,
his stuff beats the PoMo crap of a Wallace by a mile.
The first tale in the book, Djinn, is a wonderfully poetic tale set
in a fictional African country, wherein an American businessman is so
struck by the callus way a native is shot down by the local police that
he snaps. The ending is poetic. The next tale, Defenseman, is even better
in evoking the effect a thing such as a frozen pond can have in small
town family life. The Fisherman is a long piece about the trailer park
residents, and one old nut in particular, who wins the state lottery
and evokes the usual faux decency of the residents, who suck up to him.
Another terrific tale is The Lie, about the cover up of a killing. It
is brief, insightful, and loaded with social commentary in the best
possible way. Sarah Cole: A Type Of Love Story is one of the best stories
about a relationship youll likely read, and the way banks structures
it sets up the devastating end. The Burden is also a good tale detailing
a father-son relationship. The action here resonates through later tales,
as characters that star in one tale are background characters in others,
and vice versa. The Banksian world, therefore, is connected and consistent.
Some tales employ the same character at different points in their lives.
The best example of this are the tales Mistake and Success Story, which
involve a young Floridian go-getter and his failed first marriages
provenance. Plains Of Abraham is another excellent family portrait.
There are also several tales that put the speaker in the shoes of famous
people. The Visit is also a terrific story on remembrance of a persons
past, and how time affects it. If Banks longer work is anything
near his shorter work he deserves a Nobel. And I havent even mentioned
the books wonderful foreword and afterword, the former where Banks
tells of his mothers inveterate lying, and his fathers lone
whopper on how he came to be named Russell. Here he speaks of a little
admitted truth in art:
.I have come to see that most of the stories I left
behind, like my earlier selves, were failed experiments which at the
time of their composition were necessary for me to have attempted, for
I would not have learned my craft if I had not written them. And while
I now wish that I had not afterwards submitted them for publication,
I nonetheless must admit that had I not published them, first in magazines
and later in books, I doubt that I'd be able today to recognize them
as failures...those experiments, like my early poems, like my early
selves, taught me what I have no talent for and, in the end, no abiding
In destroying the art is truth ideal, Banks says A
story is ultimately, of course, about the teller, but the ambition is
to try to make it seem like it's about the listener or the reader.
In the afterword, Banks says a bit on his progress as a writer:
' When I began writing, I wanted to be a poet, but had not the
gift and fell in love instead with the short story, the form in prose
closest to lyric poetry. In the intervening years, Ive written
a dozen or so novels, but the story form thrills me still. It invites
me today, as it did back then, to behave on the page in a way that is
more reckless, more sharply painful, and more broadly comic than is
allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel,
which, like a good marriage demands long-term commitment, tolerance,
The typical Banks protagonist is a middle-aged blue collar man with
failed relationships behind him, and a bleak future ahead, yet whose
optimism remains unfettered. There is usually a moment of epiphany,
although the character often misses it. His characters are not as drunk,
nor as dilettante as a Raymond Carver protagonist, and their world is
more twilit, but they also are more competent, and generally nicer.
Its also good to see that Banks refutes many of the claims made
about him as a writer- which, while positive, are wrong. He is most
certainly not a brutally honest writer, but a massively skilled prevaricator
whose lies cut an emotional swath that few published writers of fiction
or non-fiction (and even poetry) can match. The only real weaknesses
he shows is occasionally going on too long, and merely competent dialogue.
His tales involving real life people as Edgar Allan Poe and Che Guevara
are also not particularly good. Its in the poetic reaches of his
speakers monologues that he truly shines.
Yet, Banks is no mere regionalist. As strong as his tale of New Hampshire
is, his tales set in Africa, India, Indochina, and other parts of America,
are equally engaging. Russell Banks is a great short story writer and
this book is the proof of that claim.
© Dan Schneider, June 2006
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