In the Fields of the Rich
By Russell Banks
Harper. 287 pp. $24.95
Russell Banks is turning down the heat. His most recent novels -- released to wide critical and popular acclaim -- were fiery tales of revolution: Cloudsplitter (1998) told the explosive story of abolition terrorist John Brown, and The Darling (2004) raced us through the sprawling horrors of Liberia's modern-day civil war. But with The Reserve Banks has narrowed his scope dramatically, returning to the smaller scale of his earlier fiction, even the compressed time frame of his fine short stories.
The title refers to a private sanctuary in the Adirondacks, a pristine wilderness maintained by a few families so wealthy that the deprivations of the Depression do not affect them at all. Banks provides a sobering description of the sad economic conditions that developed during this time and still prevail in such resort locales. A staff of servants and caretakers live like medieval serfs on the 40,000-acre Reserve, abiding by regulations set down by the summer people to maintain the area's idyllic atmosphere. "They were allowed onto the Reserve and club grounds," Banks writes, "but only to work, and not to fish or hunt or hike on their own. . . . The illusion of wilderness was as important to maintain as the reality."
That tension between illusion and reality is what interests Banks most here. This is primarily a novel about right and wrong, and how class and sex cloud that distinction. He focuses on a man who moves confidently among the haves and the have-nots: Jordan Groves, a left-wing artist who sells his pictures to wealthy collectors, seduces their wives, and pals around with their servants. He's loosely based on Rockwell Kent, the celebrated illustrator and labor advocate who donated a number of his works to the Soviet Union, ran afoul of Sen. McCarthy and eventually appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.
But Jordan is entirely Banks's own invention; The Reserve alludes to historical events, but it isn't built on them the way Cloudsplitter and The Darling are. Instead, Banks has created a small collection of characters from different levels of society and then brought them together for a disastrous encounter in this pastoral setting during the summer of 1936.
The novel opens when Jordan flies his plane to the wilderness palace of a wealthy collector, Dr. Cole, "an internationally renowned, if somewhat controversial, brain surgeon." Dr. Cole's only daughter is a scandalous beauty named Vanessa, 30 years old, already twice divorced. "She was rumored to have had affairs with Ernest Hemingway and Max Ernst and Baron von Blixen," but Jordan's not interested: "Plutocrats," he decides at once. "Leisure-class Republicans. People with inherited wealth and no real education and, except for the doctor, no useful skills." He recognizes Vanessa from the pages of Vanity Fair, but to him "the woman was nothing more than a socialite . . . a parasite." Nonetheless, when she bends down close to his face and whispers, "I won't be happy until you take me for a ride in your airplane," he immediately agrees, a decision that entangles him far more than he realizes.
After Dr. Cole dies from a heart attack later that night, Vanessa appeals to Jordan to give her another ride in his plane so that she can spread her father's ashes over the lake. It's a violation of the Reserve's rules, but such an innocent, harmless one that, again, Jordan can't resist.
Unfortunately, Vanessa is plotting something much more forbidden than spreading her father's ashes -- or sleeping with Jordan Groves, who's married with two boys. Behind her celebrated beauty is the dangerous and unbalanced character of a woman frightened into moral idiocy: "The truth was somewhat transient and changeable" for Vanessa, "one minute here, the next gone. It was something one could assert and a moment later turn around and deny, with no sense of there being any contradiction. Merely a correction."
That expedient attitude is completely alien to Hubert St. Germain, a proud woodsman who also gets dragged into Vanessa's deadly plot. He considers himself a throwback "to men of an earlier era, when the region had not yet been settled by white people -- solitary, self-sufficient hunters and trappers and woodsmen who thought of themselves as living off the land, regardless of who owned title to it." Now, of course, those days are gone. Once a man of "calm good sense and moral clarity," he too falls into a quagmire, "where he could no longer choose between right and wrong." But how different that challenge appears to someone who has no money, no options, no escape from his own sins.
Banks is a genius at showing people slipping into crises that scramble their moral reason, but this story depends on several startling revelations that alter everything we thought we knew about these characters. In some ways, The Reserve is a romantic thriller laboring away in the heavy costume of social realism. It vacillates oddly between aha moments and long passages of subtle analysis. And the novel's complicated political and aesthetic concerns are too quickly upstaged by romantic angst and bedroom shenanigans: e.g., "They made stormy love the entire rest of the night, until dawn broke." Sure.
The scandal that develops is periodically gripping, but what doesn't work is a series of italicized, intercalary chapters that show glimpses of Jordan and Vanessa in the future, serving in the war in Europe. At first, these episodes are so brief and elliptical that they convey no meaning at all, and even when they eventually do come into some focus, they remain unresolved. They're one more incongruous element in this alternately engaging and frustrating novel. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to email@example.com.