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Russell Banks

Russell Banks
Visiting Writers Series

In a dozen books--both novels and collections of stories--Banks has written of ordinary people with affection and compassion. Yet these ordinary people feel compelled to wreck their own lives and the lives of those around them he has "ever more clearly emerged," Fred Pfeil wrote in the Voice Literary Supplement, "as a writer from the white working class, writing directly about the rage and damage, the capitulations, self-corruptions, and small resistances of subordinated lives." Because he was raised by "one of those working women with four kids," Banks observes, "I have a less obstructed path as a writer to get to the center of their lives. Part of the challenge of what I write is uncovering the resiliency of that kind of life, and part is in demonstrating that event he quietest lives can be as compels and rich, as joyous, conflicted and anguished, as other, seemingly more dramatic lives." His novels include, among others, The Book of Jamaica (1980), Continental Drift (1985), Affliction (1989), The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Rule of the Bone (1995), and most recently Cloudsplitter (1998). With Cloudsplitter, Banks undertakes to study an extraordinary man, John Brown, through the eyes of an ordinary man, his son Owen, who attempts many years later to come to terms with his father. Walter Kirn notes in The New York Times Book Review, February 22, 1998, "Banks wisely resists psychologizing this relationship, at least in modern terms. The 'dynamic' between Owen and his father is beyond dysfunctional or abusive; it's more like a geological condition, as if the father were a massive earthquake and the son a minor aftershock. The only analysis Banks indulges in is moral analysis." The novel ultimately concerns what John Brown calls 'racialism'. The father may not think in the tribal ways of white and black, but his son does. Despite following his father to Harpers Ferry, Owen is, in Kirn's words, "a guilty, conflicted white man. A faint Mason-Dixon line divides his soul." In the last few years, filmmakers have discovered Banks' work. Paul Schrader directed a film version of Affliction and is seeking a distributor, while The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, showed in theaters this winter. Continental Drift may also find its way to film under the direction Agnieszka Holland. Unlike many writers, Banks has had good fortune; he likes the films, observing "What both Schrader and Egoyan have done is preserve the moral center of each of these books in the movies." Russell Banks has been widely honored, receiving awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Before Columbus Foundation, and Ingrain Merrill Foundation, among many others.