Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"A Permanent Member of the Family," by Russell Banks

I have long but rather inattentively admired Russell Banks’s writing, mostly from afar. For one reason or another, I have not read much of his work. I did see and very much like the sad but beautiful film made of one of his novels, “The Sweet Hereafter,” which stayed in my mind long after I saw it, quite a few years ago, and still leaves an impression. I recently picked up at the library, more or less in passing, Banks' 2013 collection of short stories, “A Permanent Member of the Family” (Ecco). By the time I was a few stories in, I was truly impressed. The title story focuses on a family dog as a sort of symbol of the family’s center before, during and after a divorce. When the dog dies, “the girls did not want to talk about Sarge,” and the family drifts apart. It is a heartbreaking look at the ways in which families hold together and fall apart. Other stories tell of families, of affairs. One, “Big Dog,” tells of the complicated responses of a man’s friends when he wins a MacArthur. Another, “Blue,” is a harrowing story of an African-American woman who accidentally gets trapped in a car lot with a vicious dog. Another details a car ride with a couple and their dead dog, as the couple tries to decide where to bury the dog. (Until I typed these last few sentences, I didn’t consciously realize how many of the stories in this collection featured dogs!) Banks understands families and relationships, and although most of the stories are told from male characters’ points of view, he seems to understand women characters quite well too. In any case, Banks -- as of course many readers already know -- is a fine (and successful) writer and one whose work I will seek out more often.

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