THE DUST JACKET copy of Trailerpark begins with this curious plea: "Read this book as you would a novel -- from the beginning straight through to the end." Inasmuch as Trailerpark is elsewhere described by its publisher as "a novel," it's difficult to imagine how else to read it -- from the middle to the end to the beginning, perhaps? Backwards?
Never mind. The point is to read it, any old way you want. Its publisher's good-hearted protests notwithstanding, Trailerpark is not a novel but a collection of interrelated short stories. Each of them is uncommonly good, and the whole of Trailerpark is greater than the sum of its parts; it is an odd, quirky book that offers satisfactions different from those provided by the conventional, or even unconventional, novel.
Specifically, they are the satisfactions of surprising, lively writing and believably human characters, held together by no central plot line or structure; yet the book has a unifying mood and, of course, a unifying setting -- the trailerpark. It is outside the New Hampshire town of Catamount, "a mill town of about 5000 people situatd and more or less organized around a dam and mill pound first established on the Catamount River some two hundred years ago." Its official name is the Granite State Trailerpark: "In the trailerpark itself, there were an even dozen trailers, pastel-colored blocks, some with slightly canted roofs, some with low eaves, but most of them simply rectangular cubes sitting on cinderblock, with dirt or gravel driveways beside them, usually an old car or pickup truck parked there, with some pathetic, feeble attempt at a lawn or garden evident, but evident mainly in a failure to succeed as such."
The occupants of the trailerpark are "generally alone at the center of their lives." Among them are "widows and widowers, divorcees and bachelors and retired Army officers, a black man in a white society, a black woman there too, a drug dealer, a solitary child of a broken home, a drunk, a homosexual in a heterosexual society -- all of them, man and woman, adult and child, basically alone in the world."
Yet it being the natural human instinct to seek community, these utterly unconnected people find themselves drawn together by the accident of living in the same place; the trailerpark, grim and dreary though it may be, is a neighborhood. And into it Banks has crowded a small but vibrant cast of characters, a human comedy in microcosm.
There are 13 stories in the book, the longest and best of these being the first and last: "The Guinea Pig Lady" and "The Fisherman," respectively. The central character in each is a person regarded as eccentric if not downright nuts by the rest of the trailerpark, as by the community of Catamount. The treatment that each receives is uncomprehending and cruel, though each finds a way to adjust to it.
The guinea pig lady is Flora Pease, "about forty or forty-five, kind of flat-faced and plain, a red-colored person, with short red hair and a reddish tint to her skin." She lives a reclusive mysterious life in her trailer, but gradually the mystery is explained: inside she is raising guinea pigs, in great and rapidly increasing numbers, and she fears what will happen when the community discovers what she's up to. She believes:
"When you take care of things, they thrive. Animals, vegetables, minerals, same with all of them. And that makes you a better person, since it's the taking care that makes people thrive. Feeling good is good, and feeling better is better. No two ways about it. All people ever argue about anyhow is how to about feeling good and then better."
Flora's innocent dencency runs up against the community's fear that the guinea pigs are dirty disease-bearers. Pressure to do something about the animals mounts to a point at which she takes peremptory action herself, then retreats from the trailerpark; her neighbors fail to tolerate or understand her, yet she emerges at the end oddly triumphant.
So does Merle Ring, the fisherman of the concluding story. He is an old and seemingly crankly fellow with a brusque manner and a penchant for homing in on the truth. During the winter he rigs up a small shack on the ice and holes up in blissful isolation, fishing through the ice. But when he wins a hugh prize in the state lottery, his isolation is rudely interrupted and the greed of his fellow trailerparkers is starkly revealed.
These two stories are the framework within which the smaller parts of the book are contained -- brief stories of hope and disappointment, of infidelity and murder, of betrayal and alienation. They are bleak stories set in a bleak place, yet there is a wicked comic edge to them. Banks has a terrific eye, mordant yet affectionate, for the bric-a-brac and the pathos of the American dream:
"They had a big wedding, lots of presents, electric blankets, electric corn popper, waffle iron, all the usual things you need, and moved right into a baby-blue sixty-eight-foot-long mobile home out on Skitter Lake. It was a fancy new Longwoods, one of the first moblie homes to come out with a cathdral ceiling and teakwood paneling in the living room. And after that, every morning when Claudel woke up in the master bedroom with that pretty young woman lying next to him, he's slowly look across the room at his Danish modern bedroom suite, on to the framed pictures of mountains and streams, to the wall-to-wall green shag carpeting, the fancy fiber glass draperies shimmering in the morning breeze, and out the window to his GTO parked in the driveway, its top down, a hugh white bird with its wings folded, and he'd say to himself, 'Claudel Bing, you are one lucky son of a bitch!'"
But of course he is not lucky: "all of a sudden the scenery changed, and the road got bumpy, and then he knew he wasn't lucky." Nobody is lucky in Trailerpark ; the best each person can do is cope, roll with the punches, hope for an occasional small and fleeting victory. The people of the trailerpark are just like people everywhere else.
Except that they live in the trailerpark. Banks catches its slightly loopy, edgy atmosphere with a nice sense of nuance and detail. His prose has a jaunty, lightly mocking quality that is entirely engaging; he's a writer who clearly enjoys what he's doing and who conveys that pleasure to his readers. Trailerpark is less than a novel and more than a short-story collection, and very good work all the way through.