WEIGHING IN – I think it was the end of ninth grade when my mom decided I needed summer reading.
I wasn’t the sort of precocious kid who tore through books. I liked school and took my assigned reading seriously, but I mostly wanted to go to friends’ houses and bike around the neighborhood in my summers.
My mom wanted me to discover what it means to immerse myself in a book, to experience the simple joy that is reading for pleasure. Or maybe she just wanted something that could keep me from smoking clove cigarettes.
Either way, she took me to the Book House in Guilderland, and we told an employee that I was drawn to coming-of-age tales such as “The Catcher in the Rye.”
The employee nodded and pulled from the shelf Russell Banks’ “Rule of the Bone.” It was a bildungsroman, like “Catcher” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and was about a 14-year-old school dropout from the Adirondacks who goes on a kind of identity quest that leads him to a Rastafarian in Jamaica. The employee warned us about the fairly graphic descriptions of drug use and sex – a good salesperson knows her audience – but she said it was an insightful and wise novel that gets inside the head of a troubled teen.
I didn’t share much in common with Chappie, the book’s protagonist who takes on the name “Bone” after getting a tattoo. But I was drawn to his voice and his thoughtful perceptions.
I was moved by lines like: “When you’re a kid it’s like you’re wearing these binoculars strapped to your eyes and you can’t see anything except what’s in the dead center of the lenses because you’re too scared of everything else or else you don’t understand it.”
Chappie wasn’t me, but he wasn’t entirely not me, and he may have been some of my classmates. And a novel about a kid who hangs out at Stewart’s and finds his way to Jamaica after dealing with serious abuse at the hands of his stepfather opened my eyes to the fact that our little corner in upstate New York is very much part of a larger world.
That novel was the first I referred to as “my book,” as in, “hey, mom, do you know where I put my book?” And it cemented the fact that Russell Banks would forever be part of my life.
So, like many, I was greatly saddened to learn this past weekend that Banks had died of cancer at his home in Saratoga Springs at the age of 82. I was never fortunate enough to meet the esteemed author, who was twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist (“Continental Drift” (1985) and “Cloudsplitter” (1998), and has written more than 20 books and taught alongside Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton.
Nonetheless, Banks has influenced me deeply – as a reader, a writer and a man.
Paul Grondahl, the director of the New York State Writers Institute and Albany Times Union columnist, has known Banks for roughly 25 years. They met on a sunny fall day when Grondahl visited Banks’ home to write a profile about him. That began a longstanding friendship that took on a new dimension once Grondahl became head of the Writers Institute in 2017.
“He’s always a down-to-earth and blue-collar guy, but his critical literary intelligence is at a high, high level,” Grondahl said of Banks. “He’s read everyone, he speaks in complete, beautiful sentences, but he still is proud of and has earned that blue-collar cred.”
That credibility came from Banks’ working-class New England upbringing, where his father, a plumber, was a physically abusive alcoholic. Banks himself, more comfortable in jeans and flannel than any fancy getup, worked odd jobs including alongside his father as a plumber and pipe fitter, while starting out as a writer.
“I don’t remember not being physically afraid of my father,” Banks told People magazine in 1989, according to a New York Times news obituary on Banks that ran over the weekend. “I hated my father, and I adored him.”
Such complexities worked their way into Banks’ writing, which often focused on class, race and poverty, particularly for the working class in New York’s Adirondacks. Banks moved to the Keene Valley in the 1980s and spent much of his time living in the region, including in Saratoga Springs, ever since.
“He’s one of the great writers that we can claim that writes in the upstate vernacular. I think of [William] Kennedy in Albany, [Richard] Russo in Gloversville,” Grondahl said. “He captures what it is to be struggling in an economically depressed area, yearning for a better way or a more hopeful, more optimistic something – something that they are not getting in a depressed area. He understood those characters who always kind of felt beaten down by life.”
It’s Banks’ characters in “The Sweet Hereafter” that make the heartbreaking 1991 novel, about a fatal school bus accident that robs an upstate New York town of its children, one of my favorites. For my MFA thesis in 2016, I wrote about the ways in which Banks opposes external perceptions of his four first-person narrators with interior thoughts that cut against those preconceived notions. For instance, Billy Ansel, a Vietnam vet who is seen as the town hero, becomes consumed by a dark cloud of depression and drinking after losing his children in the bus accident.
While the townspeople are optimistic about his resiliency, only Billy knows that he is beyond help, and deep down he sees himself as a coward.
The compassion, understanding and emotional depth Banks brings to characters from Billy in “The Sweet Hereafter” to abolitionist John Brown in Banks’ opus “Cloudsplitter,” is what makes his work resonate with so many of us. I think of “The Sweet Hereafter” every time I see a yellow school bus winding along a country road and wonder if a tortured soul like Dolores Driscoll is at the wheel. The novel remains the most heavily marked up book I own. It’s the touchstone for the novel manuscript that I keep in my desk drawer. Not only did I set my novel in a fictional upstate town and rotate through four characters navigating their lot in life, I strived for the earnestness Banks brings to every page, contemplating how he would approach a scene or a character’s reaction.
But what seems most important to me is the way Banks carried himself.
“He was like real people, authentic people. He knew who he was, he knew where he came from. He was comfortable,” Grondahl said. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, this pretentious literary guy who is kind of standoffish or can’t connect with real people.’ No, that wasn’t him. He was a real person.”
Humble in spite of genius and success. That’s a man worth trying to emulate.
After high school, I went a few years without reading Banks. I focused on the British and postmodernist novels that formed the required reading on college English class syllabi. I read Austen and DeLillo and Roth.
But even as I dug into works by these historic authors, part of me longed for the freeing experience of cracking open a novel in my leisure and simply letting it affect me the way a Banks novel does.
A few years after college – and a few years before ever thinking about pursuing a master’s in creative writing – I moved to Seattle. While browsing the shelves of novels in the central library of a city on the opposite side of the country, I strolled past the “B”s and was drawn to a bright green spine. I smiled when I saw the author’s name: Russell Banks. It was “Lost Memory of Skin,” a 2011 novel that follows a 20-something homeless sex offender named “the Kid,” living in Florida with a pet iguana. It was the kind of character only a writer like Banks could take on.
Of course, I checked out the novel, so fortunate to have rediscovered an old friend.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.