A Permanent Member of the Family

By Russell Banks

Ecco. 240 pp. $25.99

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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke

The title of Russell Banks' sixth collection of stories - and his first in almost 15 years - seems fitting. Since the appearance of his first book in 1975, the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist has come to be considered a patriarch of the family of American letters, having written such acclaimed novels as 1985's Continental Drift, the exquisite one-two punch of 1989's Affliction and 1991's The Sweet Hereafter, 1995's Rule of the Bone, and 1998's Cloudsplitter.

In these 12 stories, most of which are set in upstate New York or South Florida (which was also the setting of his last novel, 2011's Lost Memory of Skin), Banks explores the lives of characters trying to acclimate themselves to new circumstances both pleasant and unpleasant - retirement, unemployment, divorce, the death of a spouse, a MacArthur Fellowship. Other characters find themselves in normal-enough places - a Christmas party, a grocery store, a bar - that suddenly become disconcerting or even dangerous.

While Banks may be known best for his portraits of working-class life, most of the characters in these stories belong to the middle class. Nonetheless, one of the strongest stories, "Blue," concerns a 47-year-old African American woman who lives further down on the socioeconomic ladder. After years of saving, she has finally accumulated $3,000, enough to buy her very first car. After her shift ends at the mall, she takes a bus to Sunshine Cars USA with cash in hand, because "no way a used-car dealer who doesn't know her personally will accept a check from a black woman and let her take the goods home before the check clears." Engrossed in her search for the best set of pre-owned wheels, she fails to realize that closing time has passed and that she's been locked inside the lot with the guard dog, a pit bull that chases her onto the roof of a Ford Expedition.

Although this may sound like Stephen King's Cujo writ small, Banks manages to transform this scenario into a devastating exploration of race, class, and our society's evolving notion of what is - and is not - worth noticing.

Afraid to call the police because she fears that her explanation won't be believed, she attempts to persuade a teenager to distract the dog by pretending to try to get into the lot on the other side. He refuses, however, noting, "I could get busted, y'know, if it looks like I'm trying to . . . break into the building. . . . They prob'ly have surveillance cameras." Instead, he calls Channel Five News because, as he says, "sometimes being famous the only way to get free."

Fame doesn't come, however, and you'll have to read the story to see whether freedom does.

Banks gets political as well, though the results are not nearly as successful as in "Blue." In the collection's first story, "Former Marine," Connie has been laid off from his job as an auctioneer, and he's barely surviving on food stamps and unemployment benefits.

"How can he explain this to his sons without them thinking he's pathetic and weak and stupid? First the real estate market tanked, and neither the trailer nor the land his father left him was worth as much as he owed on them, so even if he wanted to, he couldn't sell the properties . . . ."

Such a predicament has been too common for too many people over the last several years, but Banks steers this story into melodramatic territory when one of Connie's sons, a police officer, just happens to mention a bank robber still on the loose. Was the mention of Connie's pistol in the very first paragraph significant? You'll have to read the story to find out (but keep in mind what Chekhov said about firearms). Regardless, "Former Marine" is a poor choice for the first story of any collection.

All in all, these two stories are emblematic of the collection as a whole. Every story that challenges us with its subtle characterizations and moral ambiguities ("Snow Birds," "The Outer Banks," the title story) seems to have a counterpart that fails to reach such heights - heights that, over the decades, we have come to expect Russell Banks to attain regularly.