When we think of Russell Banks, what comes to mind are the novels: "Continental Drift," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Cloudsplitter," "Rule of the Bone." These are ambitious books, dealing with politics and history, the aftermath of tragedy, the specter of drugs and sexual abuse.
For me, though, Banks is equally noteworthy as a writer of short fiction, and not just because in the early years of his career, he matched collections to full-length efforts, nearly one-to-one. No, it's that in his stories, Banks focuses on smaller moments between parents and children, wives and husbands, the domestic dramas out of which we build our inner lives.
"I will not go back to the house in Tobyhanna," he writes in "The Visit," from his 2000 collection "The Angel on the Roof," in which a man returns to the small Pennsylvania town where, as a boy, his family imploded, "or to the bar in town, just as — after having been there once — I have not returned to any of the other houses we lived in when I was growing up, or to the apartments and barrooms in Florida and Boston and New Hampshire, where I first learned the need to protect other people from myself, people who loved me, male and female. I go back to each, one time only, and I stand silently outside a window or a door, and I deliberately play back the horrible events that took place there. Then I move on."
The 12 stories in Banks' new collection, "A Permanent Member of the Family" — his first since "The Angel on the Roof" — are about moving on also, except that the characters here aren't looking backward to their childhoods but forward to the narrowing of life.
There's Howard, the protagonist of "Transplant," who agrees to meet the young woman whose husband's heart now beats in his chest, or Connie, the 73-year-old father of three law-enforcement officers who in "Former Marine" decides to make ends meet by robbing a number of local banks. These are classic Banks characters: taciturn, proud of being self-sufficient and yet at the very point when self-sufficiency may no longer be enough.
"No news is good news, Dad," Connie's son Jack tells him, making conversation over breakfast. But for the older man, this is just one more symbol of his disconnection. "I wouldn't mind any kind of news, actually," he replies.
Lest such a response come off as self-pitying, it isn't — that's not really part of Banks' lexicon. Even Harold Bilodeau, who spends "Christmas Party" navigating a holiday gathering hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband, doesn't feel sorry for himself exactly, although he is a little lost.
It is this lostness that Banks means to explore: what it's like to be a person for whom the future is a set of loose ends. "He felt his chest tighten and his arms grow heavy," he tells us of Harold. "She was still beautiful to him, and she was growing older, and he wasn't going to be able to watch it happen, except from a distance."
This is the emotional center of the collection, which is about how time gets away from us, leaving us in situations we never could have anticipated or known. The narrator of the title story, a father of four girls looking back "some thirty-five years" to the first days of his divorce, zeros in on the death of the family dog as the key moment in the dissolution of his marriage.
"That's a lot of weight to put on a family dog, I know," he admits, but the death is a catharsis, one he can't stop worrying over, even now. "All four daughters began to wail," Banks writes. "… Their voices rose in pitch and volume and became almost operatic, as if for years they had been waiting for this moment to arrive, when they could at last give voice together to a lifetime's accumulated pain and suffering."
Not every story in "A Permanent Member of the Family" is so effective; "Big Dog," about an artist whose MacArthur "genius" grant changes his relationship with his friends, seems a bit on the nose, and "Blue," in which a woman is trapped after hours in a used-car lot, feels serendipitous, not quite fully formed.
When Banks is on, however, the writing rings with the weight of decisions made in constrained circumstances, decisions that become more moving because of how common they are. In "The Outer Banks," a couple in their 70s, forced to accept that "the simple things had gotten very difficult very quickly — standing up, sitting down, getting out of bed, driving for longer than four or five hours," must bury another dead dog, in the sands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the weight of the experience threatens to render them bereft.
In these stories, Banks traces not so much the road not taken as the view from the end of the lane. There's a reflective quality, a sense of choices made, of consequence, in which redemption and resignation may be two sides of the same coin.
Or, as Banks observes of the narrator of "Lost and Found," a plumbing supply manager brought face-to-face with the memory of a near-indiscretion and all that it stirs up: "These were feelings about himself that he had lost bit by bit over the years of his marriage and middle age, small increments of loss, so that he wasn't even aware of the loss."
A Permanent Member of the Family
Ecco: 228 pp., $25.99