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White People, Undressed

A Permanent Member of the Family

by Russell Banks

Ecco, November 2013

It can be uncomfortable to read true stories, especially when those stories are so true that no one ever tells them. Tales from the many marginalized corners of our shared world often feel like this, like they are much more sharply resolved than we, the happy and hale, would have them be. Often these stories reveal to us people whom we have tried to forget, people whose misery we may have even had a hand in creating, parts of ourselves we pretend are not there. This is certainly true of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, a devastating novel that follows four coworkers nearing retirement, all of whose jobs are so dated that, upon their departure, the quartet will not be replaced. Pym’s is a beautiful book, but a difficult one as well, not least because the four characters’ fates hinge on a young society’s refusal to address the problems and minor tragedies that come with aging.

A Permanent Member of the Family, the latest work from Russell Banks, is a collection of short stories that strikes a similarly bleak, yet hopeful note. Banks is perhaps best known for The Sweet Hereafter, an unbelievably depressing novel about a bus crash that kills most of the children living in a small town. None of the stories in this collection approach the tragedy of The Sweet Hereafter, but many are overrun by the same overpowering pathos, to greater and lesser degrees of ham-fisted success.

Banks in A Permanent Member of the Family is primarily concerned with the middle age of the middle class in upstate New York. Keene, Troy, and Saratoga Springs serve as the wintry backdrops for almost all of the stories, with the notable exception of several that follow ship-jumpers to sunnier locales like Miami. “Snowbirds,” the fifth story in the collection, witnesses a woman as she is overcome with giddy potential after the sudden death of her older husband during a jaunt to their condominium on Biscayne Bay. She is free of his oppressive age and of the death of which she was reminded constantly by his living body and by the rough Keene winter months, but she soon finds herself unsettled in her new sundrenched life.

Each story concerns someone who has loved and lost and loved again. “Transplant,” the fourth story, literalizes this metaphor: A man has been given a new heart and the previous owner’s widow wants to meet the new vessel of her beloved, if only to hear it beat one last time. If this seems a bit heavy-handed, that’s because it is, but Banks’s style is finally understated enough to redeem his fiction for the most part.

When it comes to race, Banks seems to be at a loss. All of the stories are about white people, even those that are pointedly not. Banks’s attempts to portray the black experience in America (“Blue” and “The Invisible Parrot”) are about as interesting as saltine crackers. The dialogue in these stories sounds like an ignorant impersonation, like the words a bleeding heart assumes black people use. It’s as if the author had no way to check if anyone actually says, “Another pushy young white man. Not him. No way,” or, “But I could get busted, y’ know, if it look like I’m trying to rob from these cars or break into the building. Which it would. They prob’ly have surveillance cameras. They everywhere, you know.”

It is at these points that Banks seems dated, much like one of his characters, trying to reclaim a hold on life in a present tense that seems to be hurtling past him. If you can get past them, though, A Permanent Member of the Family is a deftly written, soft-voiced testament to a part of the human condition that we often elide. Banks refuses to dress up his prose with distracting wordplay or confusing syntax. Instead, he writes fiction, and it’s mostly good fiction too—the sort of stuff that conveys a deep hopefulness in the midst of the sharp edges and rough surfaces of reality. And his resolutions to his stories are like the missing tonic in a major chord: the keystone we didn’t know we were missing all along.

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