Sometimes you just want a good book. You don’t want faff. You don’t want some beautifully packaged cultural artifact full of postcards and margin notes but low on intellectual satisfaction (JJ Abrams’ S – we’re looking at you). You just want great writing, great plotting, observations on the human condition beautifully rendered. It’s a peculiar itch, often unsatisfied. Book after book after book, many of them average, some of them okay or better than okay – a few, the minority, great or interesting or worth recommending. It can be a little like that old funfair game, where you win a prize if you select the right key from a huge bag of keys and somehow or other manage to open the door. Finding that book, the book that floats your boat, the book that takes you away from it all for a bit, the book whose ridges catch the tumblers and turn the lock – well, it isn’t easy, but when the door opening book lands – there isn’t much that genuinely compares. Russell Banks’ latest, A Permanent Member of the Family, is one of the door openers.
Now, you should know that Russell Banks’ large back catalogue overwhelms us a little. We first crossed swords with him back in 1995, when he published Rule of the Bone, a great novel and a loose descendant of Huck Finn. We then caught the movies of his novels Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, both of which are well worth a watch and both of which increased the itch to dabble with his back catalogue some more. Then we read Cloudsplitter, his ambitious, epic retelling of abolitionist John Brown’s story and, at the time, it wasn’t for us. So we cooled a little at this point towards Russell Banks whilst at the same time retaining a little residual affection thanks to the degree with which we loved Rule of the Bone. Flash forward just over a decade – a decade in which The Angel on the Roof, The Darling, The Reserve and Lost Memory of Skin appeared (the latter book seriously piquing our interest) – and Russell Bank worked his way in to favour again. Next Russell Banks, we thought to ourselves, we’ll dabble. We’ll dabble and see where we get to. Next Russell Banks appears, a book of short stories as it turns out, and Russell Banks completely redeems himself in our admittedly unworthy eyes.
So what we have here are a dozen or so stories, set for the most part in and around small American towns. These are tales of characters, people with secrets, people learning to get by, beset by age in some cases, dealing with catastrophe in others, moving on, getting by, struggling, sometimes caught, sometimes stranded, sometimes flailing in the dark. Each story has the ripe, full-blooded power of a vintage William Trevor tale. Take the book’s opener, ‘Former Marine’, which concerns Connie, an elderly widow with three sons, two of whom work in law enforcement and one of whom works in a nearby prison. Connie is proud, unwilling to ask his sons for help, but not making ends meet; rather than ask for a handout he takes to robbing banks. We meet him on the day of his last bank job. Just writing the story down like this makes it sound somewhat glib, possibly comic. The truth is far from that. It’s a hard story, sad and steely-eyed, viewing itself without pity. Similarly ‘Christmas Party’, a story in which Harold Bilodeau is invited to a bash his ex-wife is throwing with her new husband who is, of course, far more successful than Harold. You read, feeling sympathetic to Harold for the shit sandwich life has handed him and then – for a moment – Harold veers off course and you wonder whether you were right to like Harold quite as easily as you did. There’s more here, 12 stories more, but it would be cruel and unusual to rob you of the delights to be found within the likes of ‘Transplant’ and ‘Lost and Found’ and ‘Searching for Veronica’.
We know you like short stories. You wouldn’t have made it this far in the review if you didn’t. So rather than waste any more of your time describing the delights of the book to you – delights that would rob you, a little, of the startling twists and turns – twists and turns sometimes engendered by a detail rather than a plot twist, an astonishing revelation of character, a skewed take on the world we thought was familiar to us – we will instead insist you part with your cash and treat yourself to a book that we know (we know) you will love. And then you, like us, can make up for lost time and start to work your way through Mr Banks’ catalogue. We feel like there are riches in store for both of us.
Any Cop?: A short story collection that ranks highly among the books we have read this year – and a short story collection that might well be the short story collection of 2013.