The International Writers Magazine: Fiction Review

The Angel On The Roof: The Stories Of Russell Banks
ISBN: 0060931256
Paperback, 506pp Pub
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Dan Schneider

I started 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 Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair. Thank God!

Banks is everything that is claimed about Wallace- he’s 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. I’ve 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 don’t think his best is as good as Carver’s, 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 carver’s 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 you’ll 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 marriage’s 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 person’s past, and how time affects it. If Banks’ longer work is anything near his shorter work he deserves a Nobel. And I haven’t even mentioned the book’s wonderful foreword and afterword, the former where Banks tells of his mother’s inveterate lying, and his father’s 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 interest in.

 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, I’ve 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, and compromise.'

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. It’s 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. It’s in the poetic reaches of his speaker’s 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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