At one point near the end of this novel about male brutality and family violence and squalor, the narrator asks a question that strikes fear into the reader's heart--not fear of violence, but fear that the question may suggest much more about Russell Banks' new novel (his 10th book) than could have been intended. "All those solitary dumb angry men, Wade and Pop and his father and grandfather," the narrator says, "had once been boys with intelligent eyes and brightly innocent mouths, unafraid and loving creatures eager to please and be pleased." Then he asks: "What had turned them so quickly into the embittered brutes they had become? Were they all beaten by their fathers; was it really that simple?"
The readers' suspicion is that, yes, it really was that simple, and perhaps this suspicion helps explain some of the most noticeable qualities of Banks' novel--its way of being simply too overgrown for what it really has to say. The book has at its heart a firm, lean, real, observed, honest story; but all around that heart, as if it's felt just not to be sufficient in itself, are built-up thicknesses and protections of the derivative, inflated and excessive, of the posturing and often just plain false-toned.
Take the device of the narrator, for example, by name Rolfe Whitehouse, who tells the story here of his older brother's decline into madness, confusion, paranoia and murderous rage back in the family's home town of Lawford, N.H.--a depressed and economically bypassed old mill town, population 757. Fifteen years earlier, Rolfe himself had managed to escape from Lawford by going off to college (the first in the poverty-tied family to do so), becoming a history teacher and setting up a life for himself (though a solitary one) in a Massachusetts suburb. What's wrong with that? Nothing. And what's wrong with him, now, telling the story of his brother's last, and, mad, cataclysmic days trapped back in the psychologically oppressive and economically futureless Lawford? Nothing either. What's wrong is only the unfitting excessiveness of it; the awkward, stiff, drum-beatingly inflated tone of ominousness with which the narrative device is handled, building a stagy tension that in fact makes the story more top-heavy and sluggish than powerful, and in fact, by the end, outright anti-climactic.
What could explain Bank's choice here if not an uncertainty of some deep kind about the story's ability to carry and deliver itself? Rolfe leads the reader by the hand with puffily self-conscious archaisms ("Imagine with me that . . ."; "let us picture . . ."; "Picture, if you will . . .") about which the author himself, not just the narrator, in fact seems uneasy. In his stiff-as-a-board voice, Rolfe admits that "One might legitimately ask how, from my considerable distance in place and time from the events I am describing, I can know all that I am claiming to be a part of my brother's story." This, of course, is a comment revealing an anticipated doubt about the reader's willingness at all to swallow the device of Rolfe, his words, his gloomy but earnest say-so. And what's the antidote offered for this doubt? It's neither reassuring nor relevant. "I am imagining them," Rolfe spills out. As if knowing instantly that he's done more harm than good for reader confidence, he scrambles helplessly for a salvage operation. "Memory, intuition, interrogation and reflection have given me a vision, and it is this vision that I am telling here."
Why did Banks do it? Why does he have Rolfe on stage at all to tell the story of his brother Wade Whitehouse's miserable end--especially when Rolfe barely emerges as a character, though remaining available at the very close for an unconvincing, Ishmael-like, Melvillean echo that conveys in this case only a forced and dramatically trivial irony ("No more mention of them anywhere. The story will be over. Except that I continue"). The answer seems inescapable: that the effort was a reach for breadth, depth, expansiveness, height--a literary effort, an effort made out of a crisis of confidence in the strength and significance of the novel's heart, its simple raw material itself.
The story of Wade Whitehouse, age 41, and his small-town spiral downward into ruin and horror, has about it signs of the same uncertainty and strain, partly seen in the large number of story lines that are made with sometimes transparent theatricality to converge upon the falling, writhing man. The central story--the story itself, unornamented and stripped bare ("was it really that simple?"), results by far in the best and truest parts of the book: the portrayal of Wade's fierce, alcoholic, tormented and brutal father, his drunken professions of love, his terrifying and ruinous beatings of his wife and children, the squalor and edge-of-town poverty of this doomed and emotionally tangled life from which children could do only one thing if they hoped to survive--flee--even then being perhaps already too scarred for adulthood.