Friday, September 11, 2009

The Reserve by Russell Banks - Book Review

Russell Banks moved to the Adirondacks twenty-some years ago and almost immediately started mining the region for good settings and characters to live within his often tortured vision of class distance and the tragic ends that can come.  In a series of novels including The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, and now The Reserve, Banks has used his very strong sense of place to create and maintain a picture of a region both isolated from and dependent on the outside world. While these books contain a deep sense of place and feel for the tragic, Banks is never content to continue telling the same story in the same way.  Sometimes he rises to heights of lyrical eloquence (Cloudsplitter) while in others he tells the story with simplicity that nearly disguises the horror beneath (The Sweet Hereafter).  In each novel he takes literary risks in order to examine the themes he loves so well. 
In The Reserve he explores the depths of human character and corruption through the examination of secrets, truth, lies, and honesty. Vanessa Cole, the major female character here (there are no heroes) says, “Secrets aren’t like lies.  They’re more like brain surgery.  They kill your soul.  Lying is only a technique for keeping secrets…and storytelling, which is nothing more than changing the subject in an interesting way.”  In this statement, Banks is perhaps at his most self-revealing ever.  While his stories change, the underlying truths he seeks to reveal never do, as he seeks to reveal the space in the human heart. In this roman a clef set during a few brief weeks in July of 1936, Jordan Groves, a thinly veiled portrait of artist Rockwell Kent, manages to blunder his bluff way through the destruction of all those around him, while seeking all the time to keep himself aloof and without responsibility for any of the consequences of his actions. 
When Groves sets his float plane down on the Second Tamarack Lake in the Tamarack Wilderness Reserve to visit the wilderness camp of Dr. Carter Cole, a world renowned brain surgeon, he finds himself in a world to which he is both attracted and repulsed.  Viewing himself as a committed radical, he regards people like the Coles as parasites to whom he is, nevertheless, beholden for purchasing his art work.  He is much like the stolid, reliable camp guides descended from generations of backwoods yeoman farmers and woodsmen who are now reduced to serving as guides, having lost their independence and become reliant on this community of summer residents.  In his explication of the economic and social distance between local people, descended from the early 19th century wilderness pioneers and wealthy land owners from “away,” Banks offers one of the clearest and most distinctive discussions of how the social distance characteristic of the high peaks region of the Adirondacks developed.  When I first arrived there in the mid-1950s, the situation remained largely unchanged and the character types (and some of the disguised people) portrayed in this novel were mostly still there. In the more than half century since that time, much has changed, while much remains.  It’s this world that Banks recreates. The accuracy with which he portrays it can be gauged by the reactions of people from the several worlds to his writing.
As in other Banks novels, The Reserve examines class issues and the accompanying rage of the dispossessed.  From the smarmy Reserve manager Russell Kendall through the downtrodden guide Hubert St. Germaine to Groves himself, the effects of living at the behest of great wealth are plumbed.  But the lives of Carter, Evelyn, and, most particularly, Vanessa Coles demonstrate clearly that power and wealth can destroy the spirit as inevitably as weakness and poverty, and that poverty does not ennoble human existence.  The contrast between these opposing forces gives the novel its strength and narrative drive.  Written in the style and language of novels from the 1930’s the tone at times seems anachronistic, yet, in the end, serves the purposes of the author with marvelous faithfulness.  As he weaves a web of circumstances and improbable coincidence, the lives and lies of the characters break down into an inevitable domestic tragedy of false expectations, self-delusion, and madness.  The plot verges on melodrama as Banks portrays a world in which we are all prisoners of something not quite within our control, but he never loses control of his subject and thus avoids the risks melodrama presents. 
The Reserve by Russell Banks is available in all current formats on line or from your local independent bookseller or big-box bookstore.