Russell Banks’ relays toil of life with clarity and finesse

Short stories immerse readers in everyday skirmishes and bring them back wathered

People turn to literature for all types of reasons. The weight of every day passing drives us towards it: aesthetic and formal contemplation lift us from the marshes of the mundane while cascading sentences and concave characterizations dazzle the intellect and an escape route through serpentine plots and revelations delivers us from our problems or towards the imaginary problems of others.

Russell Banks’ fiction has a transformative ability that not only immerses the reader in his characters’ everyday skirmishes but also brings them back (when they eventually return to reality) noticeably weathered. A Permanent Member of the Family his newest collection of short fiction is no different proffering 12 stories to visibly age you and make you depressed.

The characters that parade through this lean collection are excessively normal: bored retirees aged divorcees travelling salesmen and jaded bartenders fight their way through dinner table power struggles dying dogs (there are more than one) and retirement. But what appears as common reveals what common means as these people and their plights overlap with our own lives and those of people we know. They come from all age groups cultures and income brackets though there is an unsurprising surplus of aging single white divorcees (the author himself is now on his fourth wife).

Banks displays his versatility and expertise in relaying the toil of American life with clarity and utterly convincing finesse. There are times when the simplicity of the narratives border on the banal but they dodge this by virtue of their universality — we are transported through the anxiety and despair of life (and death) through the wide tunnel of these transparent fictions resting right on top of reality.

This simplicity is not present everywhere; each story displays a peek into the bubbling concoction that comprises human relationships. “Snowbirds” mirrors two sets of couples and reveals the complex mess beneath misplaced or unrealized dreams as the two wives one recently retired and the other still employed as a small-town teacher “grieve” the death of the elder woman’s husband in Miami. “Big Dog” pits a middle-aged artist recently the recipient of a prestigious award against a young gay writer at a dinner table surrounded by their friends and partners creating a tense molasses of motives and insecurities.

These are defeated people struggling against lives that constantly cheat them of pleasure. In “Christmas Party” a mild-mannered cuckold attends a party thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband the man she left him for; “The Green Door” follows a bartender a coprolalic customer and a lecherous travelling businessman as they help find the latter a brothel suitable to his particular tastes with violent consequences. Loneliness permeates each of their stories each solitary scramble towards meaning.

More sedate than 2011’s Lost Memory of Skin Banks’ new stories are no less penetrating. They follow common people with common problems and resonate with familiarity; even if you’ve never undergone a heart transplant suffered a divorce or grieved the death of a family pet you’ll feel like you’ve added their plots to your life experiences. He drafts a recognizable trajectory sketching the arch under which many of us have passed so we might better know its construction.

A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks published by Ecco Press (228 pp.).