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The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


bookcoverA Permanent Member of the Family
by Russell Banks
ECCCO, 2013, US / Profile Books Ltd, 2013, UK

Nothing is more delightful than sinking into the prose of Russell Banks.  We tend to think of him primarily as a novelist, but his short fiction is always a treat.  In this latest collection of twelve stories he shines as bright as ever.
     Family, in a loose sense, forms the tie as characters, often in morally ambiguous situations or in lives ruptured by circumstance, search for connection and understanding.
     The title story opens:  “I’m not sure I want to tell this story myself, not now, some thirty-five years after it happened.  But it has more or less become a family legend and consequently has been much revised and, if I may say, since I’m not merely a witness to the crime but its presumed perpetrator, much distorted as well.”  And so our narrator gives us his side of the story, which involves a dissolved marriage, children who divide their time between each parent, and a lovable, old family dog.  All hinges on an event which shifts the family dynamics, something the narrator is still trying to work out after all these years. 
     “Former Marine” shows an aging ex-Marine faced with financial problems which he would rather his family not know about, leading him into a secret life of crime; while “Christmas Party” follows a divorced man, still in love with his ex-wife, who finds himself at a Christmas party in her new home along with her new husband and baby boy, a situation that drives him to behave in an unexpected and bizarre manner.
     “Lost and Found” throws a middle-aged, married man into the path of an attractive woman, staying at his hotel, with whom he had almost had a fling some many years ago, a situation which once again presents possibilities, creating a conundrum that will haunt the man no matter how he chooses to act.    
      In “The Green Door” a “somewhat oversized, maybe fifty-year-old pear-shaped dude with pink skin and a thinning gray-blond comb over,” staying at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, pesters the bartender about where to find some sleazy action, and while the bartender looks down his nose at him, he passes on some info.  The reader tends to identify with the bartender, but is made to feel increasingly uncomfortable as the story nears its end.
     Then there is the story of man who receives news that he has won a MacArthur “genius” award for his art, which is the creation of “elaborate installations the size of suburban living rooms out of American Standard plumbing supplies and kitchen and bathroom fixtures.”  He is asked to keep the news quiet but insists on sharing it with his friends at a dinner party that evening, only to discover that they measure the news against themselves which shatters the relationship.
     “Snowbirds” begins with the death of an elderly man, having just moved to Florida for the winter with his wife, but turns cheery and upbeat as the wife wastes no time in making a new life for herself in the sunny tropics.  At least she will try to.
     My favorite story, in a collection without one dud, is “Blue.” Here a black woman, who has saved up for years to buy a used car, withdraws cash to finally make her purchase and ends up locked in the used car lot at night with a guard dog trained to attack.  What happens speaks volumes about our society and what connects us and what doesn’t, about what registers emotionally with the individual and what doesn’t.  I don’t wish to give away the ending, but this powerful story will forever stay with you.
      Love, loss and longing—all that drives the human heart—Banks shapes into stories that touch the soul and take us to new places. It’s a luscious ride, at times unsettling for the mirror it throws up, but refreshing for all that.  J.A.

©tbr 2014

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