Russell Banks’ Tragic World

Where some events are only to be borne, not understood.

Russell Banks’ novel The Sweet Hereafter is often presented as a story in which the quiet upstate New York community of Sam Dent is robbed of its children and innocence by an unexpected tragedy—a horrific school bus crash. But Banks’ novel is subtler than this: Each of the four voices who narrate the novel are not untouched by their own tragedy, and each knows well the privacies of personal sorrow.

The same is true of their author.

“When I was a boy, my 17-year-old brother died. And though I have lived with it—borne it, in a way—all my life, for me it was nothing compared to the effect it had on my mother,” Banks said earlier this month from his studio in Keene, a small town in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. “This was 1968, and her life has hinged on that year ever since, so there was everything that preceded it, and everything that came after my brother’s death.”

As a novelist, Banks has repeatedly returned to the enigma of tragedy and the ways it might change—and disfigure—the lives into which it tears. An earlier novel, Affliction, chronicled a son’s efforts to comprehend the brutal facts of his father’s life and death. His most recent novel, Cloudsplitter, an oral biography of the abolitionist John Brown told by Brown’s son, pursues the strange, captivating mania that fluttered within Brown’s imagination and compelled him to attempt impossible things. “What has always attracted me to narrative,” Banks says, “is the generative impulse it inspires. I have always been attracted to mysteries of a certain kind, mysteries that inspire the same things.”

When talking specifically about The Sweet Hereafter, which he’ll discuss at a number of forums around Seattle next week (see sidebar for details), Banks says the heart of the book lies in the way his characters create stories—not lies—to clarify, if not dissolve, the tragedy that has befallen them. “The fact of death on that scale leaves behind it a terrible confusion,” he says, which the characters in The Sweet Hereafter attempt to work through.

“Suffering on the scale” of that in the novel “generates mystery,” he says, and one of his ambitions in writing the book was to “try to raise this type of story to a parable or folk tale” about the creation of stories in the wake of incomprehensible loss. In a specific sense, then, The Sweet Hereafter is an understated tale about estrangement and reconciliation, and the function stories serve in bridging the two.

Banks wanted to avoid, he says, any easy “triumph over adversity” story that used the intrusion of cliché to ease readers across the rough spots, the parts that don’t meet our expectations and confound our need for order. “I wanted to reconceive the center of consciousness of the hero. I tried to rethink the idea of what a hero was,” he says, adding his disdain for “Great Man” theories of heroism. Such a version stipulates the presence of an extraordinary personage, whose exemplary strength and vision rectify a calamity that has twisted beyond the reach of common folk. “I think there’s a morality at work,” he says, in that kind of thinking. Banks disagrees. People often refuse to accept the inexplicable, but Banks looks around him and sees an amoral universe.

“We want to attribute a moral dimension to the universe,” he says, “because we want to believe we are right, that things happen for a reason.”

The morality at work in his novel doesn’t permit Banks to replace the Great Man with a humbler substitute—say, a Really Good Guy—but instead renders that variety of heroism impossible to this story. “Whatever it is we are, and whatever we end up doing, each of us is full of contradictions,” Banks says, “and we inevitably compose ourselves in complex ways.” Though The Sweet Hereafter contains a number of attempts to resolve and mend—ranging from one man’s fatalistic submission to circumstance, to the legal thrusts of suit-hungry lawyers who descend upon Sam Dent—none of them can finally retract the loss. This makes the novel a difficult tale for readers in search of a tidy end.

“I was most inclined to identify with Dolores,” the bus driver, Banks confesses. During the course of the novel, Dolores’ fitness—as an elderly bus driver, as a childless woman, as a moral agent—is called into question. “She is a scapegoat,” Banks says, but she violates the premise of villainy by appearing at the funeral of each child. She does not disappear from the scene, and hers is the last voice heard in the novel.

Banks recalls one scene in particular: As she witnesses a stock-car rally one night, Dolores watches one car take the relentless blows of the competitors’ vehicles. “And she realizes,” the author says, “that the terrible confusion of this kind of tragedy demands a social ritual to help us deal with it.” The battered car in the center of the track demonstrates her situation. “Some critics thought it was a hopeful ending,” says Banks, “but in the end, Dolores is thoroughly, utterly alone. Which was for me a bleak ending.

“I think of The Sweet Hereafter as going alongside Rule of the Bone,” Banks says. He wrote the latter novel as a follow-up to the former. “If The Sweet Hereafter is the story of the lost children, told from the point of view of the adults, Rule of the Bone is the story of the lost children, from the point of view of the children.”