The Angel on the Roof
BY RUSSELL BANKS
HarperCollins; 506 pages; $27.50
You don’t have to have children to be traumatized by Russell Banks’s fiction, but it helps. Banks has written about many things in many modes over the past three decades – gritty New England tales, sprawling historical novels, even exotic forays into Kiplingesque cultural confrontation – but his best, most unnerving work, in bone-dry, scrimshawlike fables of family disaster like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, tends to be about imperfect parents and how they fail their children. Until the film versions of those two novels came out, I’d always avoided Banks; like a lot of people, I had a vague idea of what he wrote about (alcoholic New Englanders who beat their wives and kids) and decided it wasn’t for me. Then came the movies, which made me read those books, which made me read everything else, including his big, new, career-spanning collection of short fiction.
I’m glad I did. Ranging over nearly 40 years of writing (most previously published), The Angel on the Roof is an invaluable guide to this author’s obsessions, strengths, and weaknesses. Whatever its imperfections – the material here isn’t uniformly good – the collection suggests that few writers are as scarily acute as Banks is about the dark side of parenting: the ways that selfishness (adultery, booze) can turn into full-scale betrayals, or casual imperfections can suddenly metastasize into disaster. There’s an almost unreadably upsetting story here in which a woman who has offhandedly, almost spitefully flirted with her sick son’s leering doctor, just to let off some anxiety, is too embarrassed to call the doctor when the boy worsens during the night; she doesn’t call, and the child dies. Anyone who’s known the helpless terror of dealing with an inexplicably sick child – how are you supposed to know what to do? – might have to go out and walk around the block a couple of times after reading that. I did.
The stakes in most of the stories in The Angel on the Roof aren’t as high as they are in “The Child Screams and Looks Back at You,” but even when a child’s death isn’t the price of a parent’s weakness or ineptitude, the emotional devastation tends to be total. In “Quality Time,” some spilled birdseed suddenly makes clear to a controlling father that he has no relationship with his grown daughter; in “Assisted Living,” a man who thinks of himself as the solicitous caretaker of his elderly mother realizes, as he holds a car door open for her, that he’s as much of a jailer as his womanizing father was. In many of these stories of conflicts between adult children and aging parents, recollections of childhood hurts provide the climactic insights; these stories can feel a little artificial – a little constructed. But the hurts themselves are always heartrending. In “Queen for a Day,” a 12-year-old boy whose father has left his mother keeps writing to the host of the eponymous game show, which lavishes prizes on unhappy women. “I guess it’s safe to say you don’t think her story is sad enough to let her go on your show,” he defeatedly writes in at the end of the story.
Because of its breadth, the new collection allows you to see that parental failure is merely a subset of a much larger problem haunting Banks: the unwillingness to take emotional responsibility that leads to a failure to make emotional connections at all. To convey these missed connections, Banks often relies on ironies of action or eccentricities of plot that, in turn, owe much of their effectiveness to their blue-collar New England settings – places where even the residents acknowledge “how boring it was, and how mean-minded the people were.” In “Plains of Abraham,” a divorced construction foreman, musing that he might have loved his second wife after all, accidentally causes a hospital ventilation system to malfunction; unbeknownst to him, the woman is being operated on upstairs, and she goes into a coma because of the accident. The bizarrely botched rescue of a lost barnyard animal in “Cow-Cow” suddenly makes clear to a middle-aged country couple that their marriage has failed. “How’d you come to shoot your cow here at the cemetery?” a neighbor asks the husband, not unreasonably. “I guess one thing just led to another,” the man replies, with a tragic double entendre the other man can’t appreciate.
Still, if Banks is better known for his novels than for his stories, I don’t think it’s solely because he’s had some novels turned into successful films. In his Author’s Note, Banks writes of his youthful failed efforts to be a poet, and of how he turned to the short story because it’s “the form in prose closest to lyric poetry.” But good stories, like good lyrics, are products of compression – they’re about a moment rather than a plot line – and Banks, when all is said and done, thinks like a novelist, in gradual increments of action and emotion. He needs room. When there are epiphanies here – story-making moments – they often feel stuck on: It’s as if Banks suddenly realized he was out of space, or time, and had to explain the “theme” to you. “He had done a thing that could not be undone,” the protagonist thinks at the end of one tale; “I must need comfort myself and not know it,” a lonely trailer-park denizen murmurs at the end of another. A really good story makes you feel that – without saying it.
The most successful stories here are, in fact, either the longest, which give Banks room to build up his characters’ idiosyncrasies and etch their moral dilemmas, or the shortest, where he’s forced to get to the point. Two of the best are “The Fisherman,” a 48-pager in which an old man slowly infuriates his trailer-park neighbors by ignoring his state-lottery winnings, which he keeps in a cigar box while spending the winter on a frozen lake, ice-fishing; and “Xmas,” which is all of five pages long. In the latter, a typical Banks hero – an emotionally weary, twice-divorced white New Englander who’s somewhat smugly bringing expensive Christmas presents to his poor girlfriend, whose past as a Weatherman he finds erotically stimulating – gets punched in the face by a black man after a fender-bender and realizes he’s a “fool.” “A man,” Banks continues, “whose life was unknown to him and out of control, a man whose past was lost to him, and whose future was a deliberate, willed fantasy.”
The man continues on to his girlfriend’s house, but he knows it’s all over; poignantly, he has a sudden childish longing to “be in his own home with his own children and their mother” – the mother and children he’s left behind, of course. Banks’s short fiction may be uneven, but it’s no mean measure of this author’s artistry – and humanity – that he can see in his failed, foolish adults the helpless and frightened children they surely once were.