The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russell Banks wrestled with our hopes, ideals and regrets

The novelist, whose many books included ‘Cloudsplitter’ and ‘The Sweet Hereafter,’ died at 82 on Saturday

Russell Banks in 2007. The novelist, whose books included “Cloudsplitter,” “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” died on Saturday at 82. (Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Throughout America’s renewed mania for book banning, I’ve been disappointed that “Rule of the Bone” hasn’t inspired more prigs to start collecting dry sticks. When it came out in 1995, Russell Banks’s explicit, drug-saturated novel about a troubled 14-year-old boy sparked predictable alarm. But now it doesn’t even make the American Library Association’s list of top 100 most challenged books.

Could “Rule of the Bone” have fallen so far into obscurity that it’s not engaging disaffected teens and shocking a new generation of censorial politicians?

God forbid, because we need Banks’s work now more than ever.

Banks, who died on Saturday at the age of 82, was the author of 14 novels, along with several works of nonfiction, books of poetry and collections of short stories. His fiction was relentlessly serious, reflecting the scale and scope of what’s at stake for beings burdened with a conscience. One way or another, that’s the subject of all fiction, but few novelists wrestled so strenuously with the mental anguish of falling short of our ideals. He developed a particular expertise in the way national and personal regrets commingle.

One of his greatest novels, “Continental Drift” (1985), flays alive the American Dream. His epic masterwork, “Cloudsplitter” — a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction — recalls the life of the violent abolitionist John Brown. “The Darling” (2004) traces the disillusionment of a member of the Weather Underground who flees to Liberia and gets entangled in that country’s gruesome civil war.

“Rule of the Bone” is no less brutal, but it’s more intimate and more implicit in its commentary on the conflicted state of our nation’s soul. The teenage narrator, Chappie, is homeless. That’s something of a blessing given the behavior of his abusive stepfather, but life on his own is a series of harrowing ordeals.

When I was teaching English, I sometimes recommended “Rule of the Bone” to mature students who had enjoyed “The Catcher in the Rye” but had begun to find Holden Caulfield a little twee. As many critics have noted, Chappie is closer to Huck Finn, another vulnerable outcast boy on the run through the gantlet of American society.

“Basically people don’t know how kids think,” Chappie says. “I guess they forget.”

Banks never forgot. He remembered kids’ infinite capacity for kindness, their fragile hopes and especially their profound confusion.

“When you’re a kid,” Chappie says, “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 you don’t understand it and people expect you to, so you feel stupid all the time.”

‘The Magic Kingdom,’ Russell Banks's last novel, reveals a paradise lost

Banks’s own vision was miraculously bifocal. If one eye was strapped to a telescope pointed at the past, the other was always peering through a microscope at the psyche. His last novel, “The Magic Kingdom” — published just two months ago — demonstrates the extraordinary persistence of his talent, especially his attention to the agony of crushed innocence.

The story is about Harley, a boy raised by philosophical zealots who emerged from the soil of America’s radical utopian movements in the late 19th century. He and his family eventually end up taking refuge on a Shaker settlement in Florida. The demands of total chastity in this isolated community are compounded by an insistence on total openness and unbounded love for one another. Though based on historical events around what is now Disney World, “The Magic Kingdom” is more interested in exploring the rough spiritual geography that Harley must confront. How, the novel asks, will this young man live up to the impossible ideals that outstrip his good intentions?

“I was a hair-splitting moralist, judgmental and proud,” Harley confesses many decades later. “The Shakers hated hypocrisy as fervently as I did, or as fervently as every thoughtful child hates hypocrisy.”

Few of us live in utopian communities, but many of us pledge allegiance — implicitly or explicitly — to lofty political and ethical values. And fortunately, most of us retain at least some hatred of hypocrisy throughout our lives, even as life inevitably pounds us into compromises, betrayals and failings. To ignore that discomfort isn’t a sign of maturity; it’s a symptom of moral idiocy.

Banks understood that terrifying predicament, and he explored it in his fiction with more fearless sensitivity than any other contemporary American novelist. The result was an inevitable but always thoughtful sadness that pervaded his work. In a less resilient writer, that melancholy would have turned to despair. But even when staring into the abyss, Banks’s characters are never allowed that escape.

His penultimate novel, “Foregone,” is about a documentary filmmaker dying of cancer, which is ultimately what killed Banks. Despite the fugue of hospice, the filmmaker continues surveying his past, confessing his sins, grasping for atonement.

“There’s no longer any undone future work to protect and promote,” Banks writes. “No unrealized career ambitions. No one left to impress. Nothing to win or lose.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Banks. You earned it.

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

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