The Reserve

By Russell Banks

Harper. 287 pp. $24.95



Hard to know what to make of

The Reserve

, Pulitzer-winner Russell Banks' latest novel.

It's ambitious enough: Art, mental illness, the Spanish Civil War, child abuse, and the crash of the Hindenburg all figure in it. And much of the writing is quite good, especially the descriptions of flying: "From above, the mist obscured the pilot's view of the black surface of the water. There was no wind. He cut his speed as close to a stall as he dared and brought the biplane in gently, like laying a newborn baby into its downy crib."

But the book is strangely divided against itself. When writing about landscape, houses, furniture, flying, Banks - who will be at the library tonight - displays a vivid immediacy that puts you right in the middle of things. But the people who inhabit his meticulously rendered scenes seem far less real than their surroundings, and their story leaves much to be desired in the way of plausibility.

Central to it all is Jordan Groves, an artist who bears a certain resemblance to Rockwell Kent, who had a home in the Adirondacks, where the novel is set. The Reserve of the title is a large chunk of that region carved out for the delectation of a select few of the very rich. Groves, though rich himself, is at odds with the Reserve's members, since he is - in theory, at least - a champion of the common man.

Groves pays a visit to one of the lodges on the night of July 4, 1936 - landing his pontoon-fitted biplane on a nearby lake - to see some works by a fellow artist named James Heldon. Which is how he meets Vanessa Cole, daughter of brain surgeon Carter Cole, owner of the lodge, to whom the Heldon paintings have been lent. Vanessa is 29, strikingly beautiful, already twice married, and often in the news thanks to her penchant for outrageous behavior. (The main narrative takes place during the summer of 1936, but between chapters, brief episodes in italic track the whereabouts of Groves and Vanessa the following year, which is how the Spanish Civil War and the Hindenburg come to play a part.)

Groves is married and has two sons, but it would be a dense reader indeed who doesn't sense from the outset that he and Vanessa are going to connect intimately sooner or later. It turns out to be later and in a manner unlikely to be unanticipated. One of the problems with reviewing

The Reserve

is that a lot of unexpected things happen, and you feel reluctant to mention them because it's like giving away the ending of a thriller, even though there's not a lot of suspense in these pages.

Vanessa has, shall we say, issues with her parents - and they with her. But it comes as quite a surprise when we discover how she is dealing with her mother over them, providing strong prima facie evidence that her parents may have been right about their daughter's mental stability. Equally surprising is that Groves, when he learns what Vanessa has done, doesn't immediately see it for what it is - passing strange. Neither does Hubert St. Germain, a guide who comes to Vanessa's assistance (after having, unbeknownst to Groves, come to the aid of the artist's wife as well). St. Germain, a sort of Natty Bumppo trekking in the wrong novel, at least has the excuse of being a bit slow on the uptake. Unfortunately, Banks seems to be wagering that his readers will prove equally dim.

By the time you reach the end of

The Reserve

, it has come to seem contrived and evasive. Contrived because no one seems to draw any obvious conclusions or possess any common sense: The sudden, inexplicable disappearance of a prominent individual without a trace is bound to inspire prying inquiries - ask Judge Crater, or Jimmy Hoffa.

The novel seems evasive because Groves is supposed to be an artist, but we learn nothing about how he practices his art. Oh, we see him in his studio from time to time, and he delivers oracular aesthetic pronouncements - regarding Heldon he says, "If he could paint, he'd be a lousy artist and merely a wonderful painter" - and we're told that when he speaks of "a perfect Adirondack day" he is "referring not to the season or the temperature, but to the brilliant light." We're also told more than once that he studied with artist Charles Henri.

That could be the problem. Maybe he should have looked up

Robert

Henri.

Contact books editor Frank Wilson at 215-854-5616 or fwilson@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/frankwilson.