Review of The Angel on the Roof : Stories of Russell Banks by Russell Banks

HarperCollins 2000 508 pp. 27.50

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

"When you are hit in the head or slammed in the ribs and thrown to the floor by a powerful man, you find instantly that you are already halfway into a narrative that portrays your return to that moment, a narrative whose primary function is to provide reversal: to make the child into the man, the weak into the strong, the bad into the good."

Welcome to the world of Russell Banks. While Banks' fame rests on his nine novels (notably Continental Drift ), he is also a short story writer of distinction, having produced four previous collections. The Angel on the Roof brings together twenty-two stories from these previous volumes, as well as nine recent and/or uncollected stories. Interestingly, Banks has revised most of the previously published tales, making this collection both familiar and original.

Like other American male writers of domestic fiction, Banks writes stories concerned with the painful relations between father and son, the damaged parent who goes on to damage his son. Banks' works demonstrate that while some psychological wounds cannot be mended, they can be transformed into art.

In "The Guinea Pig Lady" we read of parental techniques recurrent in Banks' stories: "The father's way of raising his children was to stay drunk when he was not working, to beat them if they cried or intruded on his particular misery, and, when he was working to leave them to their own devices, which were not especially healthful devices."

The tragedy of these men's lives-allowing for the cruelty done to their children-is that they are without the tools to understand the violence that wells up within them. These men are not so much evil as bewildered, and their dark impulses leave everyone confused, and longing for domestic simplicity, as we read in "Xmas":

"He was a fool, a man whose life was unknown to him and out of control, a man whose past was lost to him, and whose future was a deliberate, willed fantasy. He felt like an unattached speck of matter afloat in space, and all he wanted was to be in his own home with his own children and their mother, in his proper place, his life intact, all the parts connected and sequential."

In addition to the intersection and conflicts between generations, Banks also ruminates (as he did in his novels, Continental Drift , The Book of Jamaica , and Rule of the Bone ) on the conflict of cultures. We read, for example, of Buddy, a hapless New Hampshire screw-up, and his dreams of fighting with Che Guevera. "The Rise Of The Middle Class" features a meditation by "middle-aging Simon Bolivar," barely surviving an assassination attempt, looking down from his Jamaican balcony on a black man:

"You study the man for a moment. He is a slave. A man wholly inside history, you reflect. No one will assassinate him. He can only be murdered. To be assassinated, you must first step outside history; you have to be guilty of trying to affect history from outside. Like God. The slave, by definition, can never obtain that prerogative, you observe. You envy him."

Several stories feature female protagonists, struggling with husbands and children, and unwanted suitors. Like the men, the women of these stories awaken to find themselves trapped in a life that seems to have been constructed around them by someone else. Their true horror was to see this imprisonment bridging generations, as we see in "Theory of Flight":

"And she was trapping her own children. The terms of her life had become the terms of theirs, and thus they, too, would spend the rest of their lives in relentless, unchanging reaction to patterns she could not stop establishing for them. None of them, not she, not her daughters, was going to get free. Once again, she'd been fooled, but this time, she knew, it was for the last time."

Banks' world is a bleak one, of fierce New Hampshire winters whose frigidity pales against the isolating, emotional coldness of relationships gone bad. But, as the story "The Caul" indicates, the true delusion is not that one might live a happy life, but that it's possible to use our reason to improve it. "One is always amazed by what is most rational, you muse as you enter your darkened room. The irrational, even though it makes one feel helpless, out of control, childlike, seems more 'natural' to one."

Russell Banks' New Hampshire is a psychic battleground for the middle-aged male, a physical place whose geography is transformed into psychography through the relentless and unyielding pressure of having to make sense of it all, and failing. Banks' maps of the dark side of American life can provide solace and understanding, but little hope.

Yet, this bleak vision is itself also an American one. Alongside the sunny, hypocritical and relentless promises of advertising, Banks' prose provides a lasting monument to failures in life, to those who, nevertheless, must awaken next day to yet another frozen, snowbound, desolate morning.