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Affliction
by Russell Banks

Paperback - 355 pages Reprint edition (November 1998)
Harperperennial Library; ISBN: 0060920076


If Russell Banks hadn't become a writer, he thinks he would have wound up stabbed to death in a barroom brawl. He is the son of a two-fisted, drunken New England plumber, and the grief of fatherly combat resonates through his work like the background radiation of the big bang. Banks became a violently drinking plumber himself--and then a Pulitzer Prize-nominated Princeton literary giant and one of the luckiest Oscar-buzzed writers in Hollywood history.

(The Atom Egoyan adaptation of Banks's brilliant novel The Sweet Hereafter perfectly captures its brooding beauty, and Affliction may be Paul Schrader's finest film since he wrote Taxi Driver.)

Affliction transmutes Banks's painful past into fiction. His divorced protagonist, Wade Whitehouse, 41, is imprisoned by fate in Lawford, New Hampshire, a hell frozen over. He digs wells for chump change, lives in a trailer, drinks, and alienates his daughter by dragging her to a miserable Halloween costume party. In two weeks' time, Wade demolishes his pitiable hopes of family happiness, drawn into a rigorously plausible series of disastrous deaths. In flashbacks to his Dad-abused youth, we see how Wade wound up such a Dostoyevskian clown.

Banks has a mind of winter: when Wade sees his dead parent, the scene unfolds with the cold logic of ice-crystal formation. The story is narrated by Wade's kid brother, the family's sole escapee to college, in a cool, distanced way. Both brothers contain aspects of Banks, but each breaks free of autobiography. This is one haunting novel.

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ICE BREAKS BEFORE IT MELTS

By ELIZABETH TALLENT

Poverty, and the darkened, dead-end experience it dictates, has long been Russell Banks's obsessive territory. His fiction's polar settings are the rusted-out mill towns of New Hampshire and the miragelike beauty of the Florida Keys, Jamaica and Haiti - thus, in ready dialectic, America and the third world, exhausted industrialism and exhaustingly primitive village life.

Different as these worlds are, throughout Mr. Banks's work they are linked by grim paradoxes, the most dramatic being this: any attempt to escape from poverty can go brutally wrong, yet once the bitterness of one's existence begins to be even dimly realized, an escape attempt is inevitable. Therefore, in Mr. Banks's fiction, every awakening mind is immediately at risk. Not to be aware of the implacable forces bent on keeping one down is to be, in the most absolute way, a victim - used, mute, manipulated and finally, in what seems a rather minimal step, dead. To be alive, then, to try for some sense of meaning in life, is to be deeply vulnerable from within as well as without - to be, in essence, a tragic figure. [read more]

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