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‘The Magic Kingdom,’ by Russell Banks, reveals a paradise lost

Banks has created another fascinating volume in his exploration of the American experience

(Lorenzo Conti for The Washington Post)

In 1998, Russell Banks published an incendiary epic called “Cloudsplitter” about John Brown and his abolition cause. A finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, the novel felt like thunder in print. It remains the pinnacle — but certainly not the end — of Banks’s remarkable efforts to capture the moral complications of a radical life.

His new novel, “The Magic Kingdom,” returns again to that theme but in an entirely different register. The violent fury of the abolitionists’ principles has been replaced by the quiet intensity of the Shakers’ faith. Both groups looked aghast at a world intolerably corrupted, and both pursued strategies to utterly transform the status quo. But the Shakers, following the inspiration of Mother Ann Lee, withdrew into their egalitarian, celibate communities. And by setting his story among these outwardly peaceful, inwardly passionate believers, Banks has created another fascinating volume in his exploration of the American experience.

“The Magic Kingdom” is framed as a transcript of old reel-to-reel audiotapes discovered by Banks in the moldy basement of a public library in St. Cloud, Fla. The recordings, we’re told, were made in 1971 in the days after Walt Disney opened his gigantic amusement park in Orlando. The voice on the tapes is that of an elderly real estate investor named Harley Mann, who died soon after leaving this confession. Banks, now 82, claims that there are “many unsettling parallels and resemblances between my own story and Harley Mann’s.”

Impatient readers will be tempted to regard this foreword as a bit of extraneous throat-clearing, but, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s introduction to “The Scarlet Letter,” these opening pages establish the haunting relevance of the story we’re about to read. While making a show of establishing the provenance of these abandoned tapes, Banks sets the tone for a tragedy the narrator has been stewing over for more than 60 years. In other words, “The Magic Kingdom” is not the experience as it happened but as it’s been distilled for decades in the crucible of a guilty conscience.

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Stories of utopia are necessarily infused with sorrow. The term, after all, means “no place,” but its derivation has never muted the attraction of such an impossibility. Lauren Groff captured that tension exquisitely in her 2012 novel, “Arcadia,” set in the 1960s, and now Banks draws us back to the febrile atmosphere of 19th-century America when philosophical and spiritual enthusiasms germinated in communities across the land. Some of these are still vaguely familiar; others, like the Koreshans, who believed we exist inside a giant sphere, have become obscure curiosities.

Harley explains that he and his siblings were raised by devoted Ruskinites, who strove to live according to the socialist ideas of the English writer John Ruskin. “My parents were educated White Northerners with an affection for abstract thought,” Harley says. “There was much in the real world that escaped their notice.”

That combination of idealism and obliviousness — along with the early death of his father — places Harley’s family in peril. Eventually, they’re tricked into becoming virtual slaves on a Georgia plantation that has changed little since the Civil War. In desperation, his mother reaches out to a new community in Florida, where the Shakers are eager for fresh members (and labor). Suddenly, Harley finds the communist theories of Ruskin awkwardly overlaid with the spiritual revelations of Mother Ann Lee.

The trouble is not difficult to anticipate, though it won’t develop as you expect. Banks threads this story of “reckless intimacy” through the history of Florida’s tumultuous development. In the late 19th century, Shakers in New York did actually send a contingent down South to establish a satellite settlement that thrived for a time. In fact, the broader outlines of Banks’s plot are based on a real-life scandal that attracted national attention more than a century ago. But those details have faded so far from public memory that most readers will experience this story with a rising feeling of suspense and dread.

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When Harley arrives at the Shakers’ New Bethany settlement — a thinly populated plantation of some 7,000 acres — he’s a precocious 12-year-old puffed up with his late father’s charge to be the man of the family. “I was a hair-splitting moralist, judgmental and proud,” he admits. He feels right at home. “The Shakers hated hypocrisy as fervently as I did, or as fervently as every thoughtful child hates hypocrisy.” Even the community’s most demanding rule appeals to the boy. “I was not put off by their insistence on sexual abstinence,” Harvey explains. “I was relieved by it.” Living with adults devoted to “virgin purity,” he needn’t worry about his widowed mother, and his own inchoate urges can be simply denied — for a time.

The leader of this Shaker community, a commanding figure named Elder John, takes a special interest in Harley, which can’t help but flatter him. “I was determined to become a true Shaker,” he remembers. “I modeled my exterior manner and mode of being, my personality, after Elder John’s and strove at the same time to make myself into the ideal Shaker boy.”

But then Harley spots a beautiful young woman whom the Shakers are helping endure the ravages of tuberculosis. In an instant, his desire to be an ideal Shaker runs up against less sanctified desires. And so, in the moist confines of his conflicted young mind, the spores of hypocrisy find fertile soil.

As an old man near the end of his life, Harley relays these details in a slowly gathering cloud of melancholy. Indeed, “The Magic Kingdom” is dramatically backloaded, as though, having committed to a full confession, he remains reluctant to reveal what happened, even more than 60 years later. “Why would I want to revisit a place that I regard as the opening wound in a wounded life?” Harley asks as his tape recorder spins. He spends a long time setting down the social, theological and legal forces that will eventually collide, but that investment — by author and reader — is amply rewarded by this masterfully crafted story.

Our literature is thick with skepticism, condescension and downright derision directed at anyone who takes their faith more seriously than an Instagram poem. But Banks has something more complex in mind than the hypocrisy of a religious leader or the predictable impurities of a pious community. He’s interested in the way grand schemes intended to perfect human nature produce instead a combination of secrecy and shame that can spark wildly unpredictable results.

Always in the background of Harley’s reminiscence hovers Disney’s effort to create the Happiest Place on Earth — just the latest project of dreamers and schemers who sought to remake Florida in their image. A sinkhole gaping in front of Harley’s house becomes a metaphor for the geological ramifications of such hubris. But the real wreckage here takes place in Harley’s spirit, and that tragedy reverberates far beyond the Sunshine State.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

The Magic Kingdom

By Russell Banks

Knopf. 332 pp. $30

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