Relationships, their stinging hurts and their failures captured
This is a collection of short stories to shout about, one of the best books published this year
Russell Banks: his narrators are people who convince us of their pain and, often, their anger. Photograph: Oscar Hidalgo/New York Times
A Permanent Member of the Family
Fiftysomething Howard is not the nicest man who ever lived. But he is fortunate: even his former wife tries to help him, and she even persuaded her mother to let him use her vacation home for his recuperation. Howard has just had a heart transplant, and he still feels more dead than alive. That said, he is lucky to have a brisk, devoted nurse in Betty. She has a sense of humour. She needs it.
Howard’s surgeon, Dr Horowitz, is quite unusual: she is very human, and she wants to speak with him. There seem to have been many conversations. But then one day Howard notices that she “sounded tentative to him, less assured than usual. Not a good sign.” He wonders if he should be worried.
“No, no, no. Everything’s hunky-dory. I’m sorry to bother you. I’m not bothering you, am I? Can you talk?” Howard’s response is classic Russell Banks, brilliantly timed. He says, “Yeah, sure. What’s up Doc?” His reasoning is clear, as Banks continues of his grumpy anti-hero, “If she could say everything was hunky-dory, he could call her Doc.” The doctor has a favour to ask, not for herself.
The very young, fragile widow of the young man whose heart Howard now has wants to meet him. It proves a remarkable encounter, strange and unexpected yet eerily believable. Few writers look as closely at life as Banks and render it into an art that is truthful and unsettling.
This is a collection to shout about. It is one of the best books published this year, and everyone interested in the short story, particularly the American short story, will be reaching for it. It is quietly published with a simple yet complex image on the jacket: an egg in a bird’s nest. Banks is a serious artist whose novels, such as Affliction (1989), The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Rule of the Bone (1995), The Darling (2005) and the seriously underrated Lost Memory of Skin (2012), place him among the finest living US fiction writers.
His ambitious narrative Cloudsplitter (1998) confronted one of the most ambivalent figures in American history, John Brown, abolitionist, terrorist, madman, martyr, while Banks’s previous short-fiction collection, The Angel on the Roof (2000), is a masterwork. He is serious and has a moral grandeur that can at times appear righteous, but Banks at his best is a rare talent to behold, and this new book proves yet again that while he is one of the most underhyped of writers, he is also among the very best, with a better-developed sense of black humour than some readers may suspect of him.