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The Angel on the Roof : The Stories of Russell Banks
by Russell Banks

Hardcover - 512 pages 1st edition (May 30, 2000)
Harpercollins; ISBN: 0060173963

Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction) started out as a poet, and nowhere is this more evident than in his 37 years' worth of exquisite short stories, collected here in one hefty volume for the first time. In a mournfully lyrical phrase, he can evoke his characteristic landscape, the icy northeastern U.S.: "The air was crystalline, almost absent. The fields lay like aged plates of bone--dry, scoured by the cold until barren of possibility, incapable even of decomposition." Though his stories venture to Jamaica and Africa, Banks keeps coming back to New Hampshire and the themes of divorce, poverty, violence, and what he calls "the old father-and-son thing." He's not slumming in his trailer-park tales: his own drunken prole father beat him brutally, and Banks knows how grief and guilt shatter and unite families and small towns.

Characters often crop up in more than one story, giving the setting novelistic depth, drawing us into each life. In "Queen for a Day," we meet the young children of the Painter clan of New Hampshire as their dad is abandoning their mom, who then loses her job. "They run to her and wrap her in their arms... the three of them wind around each other like snakes moving in and out of one another's coils." In "Firewood," Painter's grown children rebuff his offer of fuel for their hearth, repaying his indifference, and Banks gives us a bad-guy's-eye view of their shared loneliness. In "The Fisherman," a $50,000 lottery is won by an old ice fisherman who stashes it in a cigar box, eliciting character-revealing reactions from the trailer-park denizens. "Dis Bwoy, Him Gwan" further reveals why the local pothead Bruce Severance so urgently needs the fisherman's money. The stories resonate and illuminate each other, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the collection has the cohesiveness of a 500-page novel. Banks's prose has the stark grace of classical tragedy. He's a poet after all. --Tim Appelo

 

articles and reviews
June 25, 2000
Cold Comfort
Russell Banks's stories of the American Northeast really get going in winter.

By A. O. SCOTT

In the course of nearly 40 years of steady industry, during which he has turned out 13 books of fiction, Russell Banks has allowed his imagination to range freely across time and geography. He has observed the hard realities of life in the contemporary Caribbean in ''The Book of Jamaica'' and ''Continental Drift,'' concocted a creepy, parallel-universe 17th century in ''The Relation of My Imprisonment'' and sung the battle hymn of Harpers Ferry and Bleeding Kansas in ''Cloudsplitter,'' his swollen saga of the life of John Brown. But with the same kind of homing-pigeon intuition that keeps Philip Roth returning to North Jersey in the 1940's and 50's, Banks always circles back to his own native ecosystem -- the bare, wintry towns of central New England and upstate New York in the raw confusion of the present and the recent past. [read more]

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