A fantastic collection of life-changing stories
I have always been a Russell Banks fan, and when I look back over the last 40 years, he has always been there with memorable portraits of flawed but unforgettable people — all products (or victims) of American culture. I remember his treatment of John Brown, a historic figure that Banks recently called “America’s first terrorist” (Cloudsplitter).
Then, there is the guilt-ridden school bus driver in The Sweet Hereafter or the latter-day Tom Sawyer in Rule of Bone. More recently, there is the young, bewildered narrator of The Lost Memory of Skin, who lives with a homeless and despised colony of outcasts under a viaduct in Miami. There is probably another movie there ... especially since the location really exists.
In addition to his skills as a novelist, Banks is a master of the short story. Like the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, Banks assembles short stories like a skilled craftsman who shapes a collection of separate pieces and then molds them together into a unified whole. A Permanent Member of the Family consists of a dozen short stories. In every instance Banks depicts a protagonist who discovers that his/her world has altered in some crucial way due to unforeseen changes. Most of the stories deal with that nuclear unit, the American family which can be altered by death, divorce, time and accident. A change has come and decisions have to be made.
The majority of Banks’ characters tend to be upper middle-class professionals living in upstate New York, or the lush retirement communities in Miami or Sarasota Springs. They are “privileged folks” — lawyers and other professionals who move in the secure world of wealth and security. There are a few exceptions: Ventana, who has been saving $100 each month for three years to buy a used car, or the cynical bartender in “The Green Door” who watches his customers move toward disaster.
Consider “Former Marine” in which Connie, a man who is accustomed to taking decisive actions makes a life-changing decision. After a military career, he has managed to survive financially. Recently, he has been working as an auctioneer. Now, suddenly, he is told that his job has been terminated. He is 70 years old, divorced, hearing impaired, and living in a mortgaged trailer. He has three sons, all in law enforcement and worried about their father’s ability to fend for himself. What should he do? After considering his options, Connie decides to rob a bank.
Then, there is the title story, “A Permanent Member of the Family,” which demonstrates that regardless of how amicable the divorce, there are always casualties. When the narrator divorced his wife, Vicki, there was little bickering over furniture, cars and summer homes. Both husband and wife were members of affluent families, so when the three daughters chose to live with narrator on alternate weeks, life went on ... except for Sarge, the aging family dog who refused to participate in the weekly exchange. When forced to accompany the daughters to Vicki’s new home, Sarge simply runs away and finds her way back “home.” When Sarge is accidentally killed, the narrator realizes that more was lost than a dog “who was a permanent member of the family.”
When Eric wins a fellowship from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation, he is eager to share the news of his good fortune. “Big Dog” chronicles his surprise and frustration when he discovers that his wife and some of his “friends” react with resentment. Suddenly, his good fortune turns into the means of exposing his marriage and his academic life for what they really are: shallow, pretentious and riddled with deceit.
In “Transplant,” when Howard received a heart transplant in Boston, he suddenly found himself on the brink of a new life. As he participated in therapy designed to ease him into a series of “life adjustments,” all seemed to go well until his wife told him that the wife of “the donor” wanted to see him. Why?
Howard’s ex-wife loans him a summer house while he recuperates and his doctor arranges the bizarre meeting with Penny McDonough. As it turns out, Penny has little interest in Howard. She merely wants to listen to his heart and she has brought her own stethoscope. Penny wants to have one final visit with her husband, Steve.
Jane and Isabel had been lifelong friends and since they were both teachers, they had worked together until Isabel and George had moved from the Adirondacks to Miami. When Isabel calls Jane with the news that George has dropped dead while playing tennis, Jane immediately boards a plane for Miami.
When she arrives, instead of finding a distraught, grieving widow, she finds a woman who seems to be content and even happy. In fact, she is full of plans for a new, exciting life. “Snow Birds” is a delightful story about a new widow who is eager to go shopping, and on the way, she decides to pick up George’s “cremains.”
After the funeral, Jane discovers that Isabel has cancelled plans to move into an “assisted living” center, telling Jane, “that was always George’s plan, not mine.” Jane is buying a condo in Miami Beach.
When Isabel accidentally drops George’s urn and spills his ashes on a table, she finds two buttons from a Navy uniform. She has somebody else’s ashes. After a bit of thought, Isabel decides she likes the idea that George’s ashes probably received a military funeral. In time, Jane decides to expand her visit. In fact, she isn’t sure when and if she will return to her job.
One of the darkest tales in this collection is “Blue,” which is the story of Vantana’s attempt to buy a car at a used car lot in Miami. Vantana has 35 $100 bills and she has brought the money in cash because she knows that no used car lot in Miami will accept an African-American’s credit card for payment. It has taken her three years to save enough to buy a dependable car, but unfortunately she arrives at the used car lot just before closing time. Consequently, Vantana finds herself locked in the used car lot, and in a short time, she is forced to climb to the top of a car because of a guard dog that is released to prowl the lot after closing time.
Vantana has a cell phone and could call 911; however, she knows that if 911 shows up, so does the police and her experience tells her that nothing good can come of the police. Vantana is 47 years old, but has never owned a car. As the night passes, she talks to a street-wise child and a mobile TV crew, but finally ends up alone. As she reviews her life, it seems that she has always been trapped, alone and defenseless.
This is a fantastic collection from one of America’s most talented writers.
Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks. HarperCollins, 2014. 228 pages.