Quite steadily, and sometimes with powerful art, Russell Banks has been devising fictional varieties of the "this is poison" warnings on cigarette advertisements.
Our society's message about an affable world of clean microdots and expanding consumption--the equivalent of the pool-side set blithely puffing away--has lethal side-effects, he tells us.
Cigarette ads carry labels; our latter-day, easy-going social gospel comes without one; so here is Banks.
He is not much concerned with the sensibility class, the anxious and affectless who can afford cocaine, condos and foreign cars with domestic exhaust. He writes about people a notch or two down: blue-collar workers looking for something better, the young unprivileged trying to make it, migrants and emigrants; in short, all those who seek to acquire the kind of bed in which you can have the American dream. The search is active and forlorn; and because it means muscling in on what is already taken, it can be disastrous and sometimes mortal.
Banks' "Continental Drift" was a fierce, almost epic novel about two sorts of underclass colliding fatally, as both try to seize what seems to be promised in 1980's America. A New Hampshire repairman, lured by the advertised ease and easy wealth of south Florida, crosses bloody paths with a group of Haitian boat-people fleeing their own infinitely tighter constriction for an even more illusory future.
There was a Dreiser-like anger in "Continental Drift," and there is some of the same kind of social criticism in "Success Stories," along with a predilection for rough irony--as in the title--and a muscular correlation of the internal state of his people with what happens to them outside.
Five of the 12 stories in "Success Stories" are linked, giving us glimpses of the partial rise of a boy named Earl Painter out of an old kind of American bleakness into a newer kind. They repeat, in a doleful rather than a tragic vein, the theme of imaginary betterment contained in "Continental Drift."
In the first story, Earl is a child, living in a depressed New Hampshire town with his impoverished mother and a younger brother and sister. Their father has left them for another woman. Feeling himself the man in the family, Earl latches on to the first of a series of social delusions. A local broadcaster runs a Queen for a Day program; the award--purely symbolic--going to the woman with the hardest-luck story. Earl writes three increasingly pitiable letters about his mother, but never gets answered.
Over the next three stories, he leaves college after a semester on a scholarship, and goes to Florida. He works at a menial job, and eventually gets a series of better ones decorating store windows. He gets engaged, as well; but none of these forms of "success" do much for him. Marriage and window-designing stretch ahead as a higher form of servitude; and in a final story, years later, he is back in New Hampshire, divorced and not doing much.
Banks tells the Painter stories with a deliberate lightness and at a deliberate distance. In a way, they are ordinary; but in a way, that is the point. Dryly and effectively, he suggests the sterility and solitude of middling success, without ever making Earl seem in the least self-pitying or soft. He is no repiner; he goes after things, but they aren't much good.
Some of the stories depart from realism and make their points in fablelike fashion. In "The Fish," a giant fish is discovered in a pond in the Vietnam countryside. At first, the local commandant--this is before the communist victory--tries to destroy it. It simply grows larger, though, and attracts pilgrims. So the commander sells them bottles of pond-water. Tank trucks come up from Saigon as the trade grows; and eventually, the water is exhausted and the fish dies. Capitalism, the message goes, can be more lethal than warfare.
Banks has the morals for fables, but sometimes, as here, he lacks the delicacy. On the other hand, he achieves a hallucinatory power in "Hostage." Guerrillas in some Third World country kidnap the German ambassador. As the army charges in, disastrously, the ambassador imagines five increasingly outlandish escapes. The effect is to evoke and explore the strange, cut-off world of hostages and captors, where values and emotions are so oddly set askew.
The strongest story in the collection, in fact, is a mixture of fable and realism. In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," the narrator, a prosperous yuppie, meets an older woman in a New Hampshire bar. She is divorced, has three children and works at a low-paying job in a printing factory. They belong to different classes. But not only in the social and economic sense: He is remarkably handsome; she is extraordinarily ugly.
They fall in love, nonetheless. We are in a parable, yet Banks powerfully underpins it by his absolute feeling for place and person. The unconventional affair continues until Sarah demands that her lover meet her friends and children; in short, acknowledge her publicly. He tries, but it is too much for him. In a fearful scene, he throws her out and reviles her for her ugliness. Suddenly, she seems beautiful.
Fundamentally, it is the truth, of course. For a while, the couple had lived out the old-fashioned adage: "Beauty is only skin deep." And then the narrator loses his nerve and retreats back into present-day America, where the adage has been changed to: "Beauty is skin deep."
In Banks' work, society, as much as character, is fate. "It is time to stop worrying only about how the bruise makes us feel," I can imagine the author addressing some of his most talented fellow-writers. "I want to tell how it got there."