Failures of Family and Community Solidarity in Russell Banks’s short story collection “A Permanent Member of the Family”

This was my first exposure to Russell Banks’s works, and knowing that he is an award-winning author, I was eager to see what others had seen in his works that might represent the need for acclaim.  Nevertheless, although the stories were quite insightful and profound in their treatment of various kinds of failure to maintain relationships, they were not what they had been represented to be in the blurb I read.  The blurb had indicated that they were all about family and the interconnections therein, whereas they proved a little more often and a little more strongly to be about failures of marriages and community solidarities than about families plain and simple.

Not that there were not families in the stories.  In the title story, “A Permanent Member of the Family,” a family divided by divorce but at first managing more or less amicably to “get along” with a two-household situation becomes permanently split up over the quite accidental incident when the father, in his truck and in front of his three daughters, backs over the very old, very incapacitated family dog and kills it.  The father, one would think, is a permanent member of the family, but what happens is that he finds out he is out in the cold when the perhaps more symbolic but certainly loved dog, another “permanent” member of the family, is gone.

The tales mainly circle, however, around families who are falling apart due to divorce or who are already adults and have their own families, or significantly enough around groups of  friends or strangers who have formed themselves into family-like units, or who at the very least owe each other some kind of humane courtesy as fellow humans.  In “Former Marine,” grown-up sons must deal with their father’s secret behavior, and its aftermath; in “Christmas Party,” a cuckold must learn to accept socializing with his wife and his wife’s new husband, and desist from any attempt to take away from their happiness.  In “Transplant,” an older man who has received a new heart finally accepts an emotional summons to meet the former owner’s mate.  This is perhaps the one story in the collection which represents a positive rather than a negative movement.  In “Snowbirds,” a woman must accept that her good friend does not mourn the death of her own husband adequately, and must turn away from deserting her own husband likewise, out of a desire to recover her own autonomy, however well worthwhile it is to have.  “Big Dog” is a story in which a group of friends, all artistically or creatively inclined, in jealousy and spite turn away from a member of the circle who has had a sudden break of good fortune; this group of naysayers includes his own mate.  In “Blue,” a woman with a strong sense of community abruptly finds herself deserted by the community, and alone with a ferocious animal, and no one to help her get away.  “The Invisible Parrot” shows a man, down on his luck, who attempts to forge a tenuous bond with a woman down on hers, based on what he uses the force of imagination to “see” of her life, only to have her turn out to be incapable of the connection he is attempting.  “The Outer Banks” is another dog story in which a man and a woman must make peace with their decision to be permanent travelers, and must find a resting place for their loyal dog.  This sets them at odds, and changes the tenor of their trip.  “Lost and Found” shows a man who is different away from home than he is when at home, and a woman who tries to rely on his “away self.”  He has to make a commitment to one self or the other, and the story is about what he keeps, and what he has to give up.  The story “Searching for Veronica” is a bit mysterious, in the sense that the narrator himself disputes an inset story he is told, and he is given the same first name as the author of the collection, to add to the uncertainty.  He listens to a story told in an airport bar, but then argues that the woman and those she searches for are one and the same, seeming to prefer a more “literary” and recondite story than the one he heard.  She is describing a failure of community from her own life, as well as a failure of family, but he himself encapsulates this failure by instituting one of his own, with her.  Finally, “The Green Door” features people who are total strangers to each other, not family members, and who are driven by casual malice, concupiscence, and murderous hatred.  Here there is the futility a bartender experiences of attempting community with others who are equally callous; what seems like a mere indifference to eccentrics in the beginning of the story emerges as a positive cruel viciousness by the end.

Thus, all in all, though Banks in this book largely examines bonds being broken, they are not as the blurb misdirected me to believe always the bonds of family per se, but also the links and connections of humanity and fellowship.  The book is quite remarkable for stories which are so relatively short and condensed, yet so full of significance and emotive power as well. The language of the stories is usually quite simple, and where accents or dialects are indicated, the tactic is relatively subdued and not overdone.  Overall, this is a fine book, one well worth the praise and attention it has garnered from many different corners of the critical world.  Now if only blurb writers could learn to be a little more accurate in their assessments!  But that misdirection is in no wise to be attributed to the book itself, which repays serious attention and will no doubt continue to do so for many a long year, long after the stories themselves have become dated in their references and facts, for the truths in the book are universal and timeless, though well-cloaked in the topical and temporal world.

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5 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

5 responses to “Failures of Family and Community Solidarity in Russell Banks’s short story collection “A Permanent Member of the Family”

  1. Blurb writers can be a pain. There is something harrowing about picking up a book and worrying that a major plot point will be given away on the back. All we ask as readers is to be informed of a books contents and allowed enjoyment of discovery.

    There was a time when I avoided any emotional context whatsoever but these days I am ready to keep expanding my love affair with the word. My literary world would be a lot less richer if we had not started blogging with each other.

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence; I too would really miss blogging with you. About blurbs, I don’t so much mind having it told or hinted what is going to happen in the book as long as what is important to the particular literary experience is HOW the thing happens rather than WHAT happens. If the novel or set of stories is simply plot-driven, however, then of course the spoiler alert or restraint is necessary. Anyway, thanks for commenting.

      • A subtle blurb is always better, entice the reader in with hints and mystery. I think were I to be the author of a book I would wish to write the blurb myself to keep the surprises just that. Maybe I should start going into books blind…except what I read in blog reviews of course.

  2. Ivalleria

    Almost all of the emotional conditions portrayed sound interesting, but I find something a little gimmicky about the execution. The dad runs over the dog. Heart transplant. Ferocious animal. The stories where the misadventures seem more realistic (friend has artistic success) appeal to me more.

    Also, incidentally and based on another post, my Fay Weldon arrived. I’ve only read the first page but learned something fascinating…. people used to dig up their Christmas trees and then replant them! Wow. I’ve always felt that the tree tradition seemed so wasteful and strange and of course it wasn’t always like that…. !!

    • Yes, Russell Banks wasn’t my favorite of the short story writers I’ve recently reviewed. Funny thing, the moment I saw he was writing a heart transplant story taking place in the geographic area of Massachusetts or New England, I was sure he was going to re-tell the real story of a woman who received a heart from a former biker who’d died in a crash, and who after the transplant began to long for beer, cigarettes, and fast vehicles, among other things. It’s a real urban legend from this part of the country, but it’s a true story, documented by the hospital which treated her. But Banks didn’t do this. I’m not sure how I would have responded to the story if he had, because the woman herself wrote her own memoir about the events concerned. Really, it’s more her story than anyone else’s.

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