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Remembering Russell Banks, a novelist who depicted working-class life

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Russell Banks, the author whose bestselling books include "Affliction," "Continental Drift" and "The Sweet Hereafter," died of cancer Sunday. He was 82 years old. Banks was born in 1940 and grew up in Barnstead, N.H. In the early 1960s, he was a pipefitter working for his father, who, like his father before him, was a plumber. But Banks' father also was an alcoholic and abusive, memories the son dealt with by becoming a writer and examining them in such novels as "Affliction." A movie version of that novel won an Oscar for actor James Coburn. And the film version of Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter" won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His novels "Continental Drift" and "Cloudsplitter" about the abolitionist John Brown were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Russell Banks taught writing at Princeton University.

Terry Gross interviewed him in 1989 when he had just published "Affliction." That novel asks if it's possible to break the chain of male violence. It's narrated by a character named Rolfe Whitehouse, who tells the story of how his brother Wade turned into a man even more violent than their father.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: I'd like you to do a reading from "Affliction," and this is a scene in which the father who beats his wife and his children is confronting his son. And the son has to figure out what to do. And this is the older son in the book, Wade.

RUSSELL BANKS: Yeah, Wade. Wade is the protagonist, really, of the novel. And we're dealing with him as an adult, for the most part, for two weeks in his life, really. But this scene - and it takes place when he's about 16 years old. And it's really his - part of his essential childhood. His father has - he's tried to confront his father in the middle of a quarrel between his father and mother. And the father says (reading) you're telling me - you are trying to tell me what I'm supposed to be afraid of? You think I'm afraid of you? He showed his large teeth and made a quick move toward Wade. And when Wade jumped, he stopped and folded his arms over his chest and laughed. Jesus H. Christ, he said, what a candy ass.

Without thinking it, Wade reached behind him into the dish rack, and his hand wrapped itself, as if of its own volition, around the handle of the skillet - heavy, black, cast iron. And he lifted it free of the rack and swung it around in front of him. The sound of his heart pounded in his ears like a hammer against steel. And he heard his voice, high and thin in the distance, say to his father, if you touch her or me or any of us again, I'll kill you. His father quietly said, Jesus. He sounded like a man who had just broken a shoelace. I mean it. I'll kill you. He lifted the skillet in his right hand and held it out and just off his shoulder, like a Ping-Pong paddle. And he suddenly felt ridiculous.

Without hesitation, Pop walked quickly around the table, came up to his son and punched him straight in the face, sending the boy careening back against the counter and the skillet to the floor. Grabbing him by his shirt front, Pop hauled the boy back in front of him and punched him a second time and a third. A fourth blow caught him square in the forehead and propelled him along the counter to the corner of the room where he stood with his hands covering his face. Come on, his father said, and he advanced on him again. Come on, fight back like a man. Come on, little boy. Let's see what you're made of.

Wade yanked his hands away and thrust his face open-eyed at his father and cried, I'm not made of what you're made of. And Pop hit him again, slamming Wade's head back against the wall. Wade covered his face with his hands once more, and he began to cry. Pop turned away in disgust. You sure ain't, he said. And he walked over to the door, where he turned back to Wade and said, next time you start telling your father what to do and what not to do, make damn sure you can back it up, buddy boy. Then he went out, slamming the door behind him. Wade let himself slide slowly down to the floor, where he sat with his arm - with his legs straight out, his head slumped on one shoulder, his arms flopped across his lap - a marionette with its strings cut.

GROSS: Wow. That's a terrific scene. You know, the two brothers in this book, one of them, Wade, who is in the scene that you just read, decided to fight back at some point. Whereas his other brother, his younger brother, Ralph (ph), learns to hang his head in shame and back away, something he learned from his mother.

BANKS: Right.

GROSS: When you were growing up in a family with an abusive father, did that seem like the two alternatives, to hang your head in shame and back away or to learn how to fight back?

BANKS: Yeah. I think that - yeah, for a boy, that's certainly the two alternatives because you can imagine and you internalize early - and then later put into action - that fantasy of revenge, of fighting back. And Wade's taken that route despite its destructiveness in his life. And then - or you can run. You can be the denier in a sense. You can cut yourself off from others and remove yourself from family or community and all forms of intimacy, more like Ralph, the narrator of the book.

GROSS: Which did you do?

BANKS: Well, in a sense, I did both, I think, at different stages of my life. When I was very young - I mean, when I was in my late teens, early 20s and so on - I was one of those turbulent, violent young men, always on the edge of exploding and, oftentimes, actually exploding - a barroom brawl - or kind of person that society has kind of mixed feelings about. On the one hand, he's often attractive and the hero of a lot of films and television specials and so forth. On the other hand, he's a repugnant and chaotic individual. And then later, I think I went through a period of my life where I was distanced and detached and protected myself and protected others through that.

GROSS: Is the scene that you just read a scene from personal experience?

BANKS: Well, to some degree. In terms of the boy wanting to defend his mother and understanding his role in the family as that, that was certainly something that I experienced emotionally and situationally, not necessarily at the same age or exactly the same circumstances - and then failing to be a man, as it were, in those terms that the father was defining, to rise to that occasion, failing to become that person. So that's - yeah, that's, I mean - in a way, that's the essence of that scene, is it's a challenge that's thrown down. Be a man. And to be a man, he's got to fight him and not be a victim, not just be beaten by him.

GROSS: Ralph, the brother who withdraws...

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Says at one point, I became a careful adult. It may have been a high price to pay, never having been carefree, but at least I avoided being afflicted by the man's violence. But he kind of comes to realize that there's other kinds of affliction from this violence, too...

BANKS: That's right.

GROSS: ...Which is the knowledge that you're withdrawing from life to protect yourself.

BANKS: That's right.

GROSS: And I was wondering at what point you started to realize that and also to fear this kind of deeper affliction, that it's something that you would carry, that in a way, someone who came from an abusive family might be something of a time bomb themselves.

BANKS: Well, yeah, Ralph is sort of whistling in the dark there in the passage you quoted. And part of his telling of the story is a way of his realizing that he is whistling in the dark so that the last lines of the book, in a way, are his gradual admission that he's still locked in in some way. And that's certainly the first step toward perhaps release from the situation.

My own case - it's hard to say. This is a process and a lifelong one. I've been writing about these kind of men and boys for most of my career in one way or the other, most of the time - and I think less so now - indirectly and obliquely. But as my own emotional life has become a little bit less tangled and turbulent and conflicted, I've been able, as a writer, to approach the characters and the world that they live in more directly. I mean, as a novelist, I have access to certain tools and strategies, I guess, for lack of a better word, that perhaps a person normally doesn't have just because, for instance, memory is a crucial novelist tool that has to be cultivated and preserved. And so I'm forced again and again through that to go back to my own childhood.

BIANCULLI: Russell Banks speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. After a break, we'll hear another of their conversations from 1995. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MYCHAEL DANNA'S "TITLE MUSIC")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Today, we're remembering author Russell Banks, who died last Sunday at age 82. He's the author of such acclaimed novels as "Continental Drift," "Affliction" and "The Sweet Hereafter," all of which were adapted into Hollywood movies. Terry Gross spoke to Russell Banks again in 1995, when he had just written another book called "Rule Of The Bone." The narrator of that book is a 14-year-old named Chappie, from upstate New York, who wears a nose ring and a mohawk. He steals from his parents to finance his dope habit, gets kicked out of the house, becomes homeless and sets off on a low-life adventure. Banks began that conversation with Terry with a reading from "Rule Of The Bone."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BANKS: (Reading) Anyhow, my life got interesting, you might say, the summer I turned 14 and was heavy into weed, but I didn't have any money to buy it with, so I started looking around the house all the time for things I could sell, but there wasn't much. My mother, who was still like my best friend then and my stepfather, Ken, had this decent house that my mother had got in the divorce from my real father about 10 years ago. And about that, she just says she got a mortgage, not a house. And about him, she doesn't say much at all, although my grandmother does. My mom and Ken both had these cheesy jobs and didn't own anything you could rob, at least not without them noticing right away it was gone. Ken worked as a maintenance man out at the air base, which is like being a janitor, only he said he was a building services technician. And my mom was a bookkeeper at the clinic, which is also a nothing job, looking at a computer screen all day and punching numbers into it.

It actually started with me roaming around the house after school looking for something that wasn't boring, porn books or videos maybe or condoms - anything. Plus - who knows? - they might have their own little stash of weed. My mom and especially Ken were seriously into alcohol then, but maybe they weren't as uptight as they seem, I'm thinking. Anything is possible. The house was small - four rooms and a bathroom - a mobile home on cinder blocks, like a regular house, only without a basement or garage and no attic. And I lived there with my mom and my real dad from the time I was 3 until he left, which happened when I was 5, and after that, with my mom and Ken, who legally adopted me and became my stepfather up until now. So I knew the place like I knew the inside of my mouth.

GROSS: Russell Banks, thanks for reading that. You have some things in common with the character in your book. Your father was abusive. You were a rebellious teenager. But you were rebellious, I don't know, 30 some odd years ago. Were there mysteries that this character had for you that were partly maybe because of the times, because he's rebelling in the 1990s, and there are some things from what he might get tattooed to what he might be listening to, to how he's going to act out his rebellious feelings, you know, that would be different from yours?

BANKS: Oh, yeah, sure. The main thing, I think probably the most obvious thing, is drugs. When I was 16, I stole a car and ran across the country and disappeared for three months and, you know, did some of the destructive and angry things that the Bone does and that a lot of kids do. But there wasn't the danger. I couldn't step into the world of drugs that easily and that quickly. I would have had to have really worked hard to do that. And this was, you know, in the late '50s.

GROSS: Your father, who was abusive, left your family when you were 12. So while he was part of the family, he was always bigger than you, probably a lot bigger than you. You were a kid. Did you ever confront him as a man?

BANKS: Oh, yeah. We made our peace, actually. I went back and dealt with my father very closely. I even worked alongside him. He was a plumber, and I became a plumber and worked with him and even lived in his house for a period, too, when I was in my 20s and became never really affectionate but close, if that's possible. And it certainly was how I experienced it. We were close. I was very involved with him right up to the end of his life. He died in 1979 at 63, when I was in my 30s. And so, yeah, we dealt. I never, I think, had that kind of vengeful clarification with him. But I didn't really need it or want it by the time I was in my 20s.

GROSS: There's something that I think I might have asked you about once before, but it still really interests me. You once said that your father felt that, you know, moving up in life was a betrayal, that it was somehow a rebuke of the life that he had led.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: And unless you were just doing some wheeler-dealer thing and finagling something...

BANKS: Yes.

GROSS: ...In which case that was fine. What do you think is the difference between the impulse to sacrifice for the children so the children can have more than you do and the impulse to feel, well, why should they have more than me - what's good enough for me is going to be good enough for them?

BANKS: Well, I think it's a difference in believing in the American dream and no longer believing in the American dream, that if one generation sacrifices itself, the next - for the next generation, then that next generation will profit from it and move up in society and be empowered in such a way as to make it even better for the third generation. It's that three-generations syndrome. And many Americans have not - after having been here for a long time - African Americans and white Americans, too, who have gone through eight, 10, 15 generations in America don't find that that model, that dream, doesn't describe their experience. And I think they grow bitter and mistrustful, profoundly mistrustful of anybody who separates themself from them by moving up, you know, and so forth. They've - it isn't that they just accept their fate. It's that they feel there is no realistic alternative. And if you're advancing yourself in society, you're rejecting them. It's a way of disconnecting yourself from them.

GROSS: So tell me more about why you think your father felt that, you know, if one of his kids moved up, it was somehow a betrayal?

BANKS: Well, it probably - since he didn't feel he was sacrificing in his youth - my father's a very bright man, a very gifted man in many ways, who - he's a child of the Depression and went to work in this - when he was 16 and dropped out of school and worked with his hands his entire life. And he was bitter about that, I think, and didn't feel as though that was - he was sacrificing anything. So he was, in some ways, not connected to his own children, the next generation, to their future. And so by having that sense of disconnectedness, if I didn't live his life exactly, more or less the same, I challenged and humiliated him for that. It wasn't as though, you know, by my living a different kind of life, I validated and justified a sacrifice on his part.

GROSS: Do you think that held you back for a long time?

BANKS: I think it injured my sense of self-esteem and made me feel, for a long time, essentially inadequate and incapable of achieving. I wasn't raised to believe that, really, that anything was possible for me and that my parents were sacrificing in order to advance me in the world. So, yeah, I think that there was a bit of a disability there. But on the other hand, it made me, in a way, more the master of my own fate, too. I didn't owe anything to anybody backwards in time, you know? Whatever I got, one way or the other, I got it myself.

GROSS: Was there a teacher who helped kind of counteract that sense of advancement as betrayal, who...

BANKS: Yeah. Early on, in my early 20s, I had the great, good fortune to run into the novelist Nelson Algren when he was in his late 40s and I was in my early 20s. And it was purely, you know, fortuitous. And he read some of the stories, and I was - that I was then writing. And I was working as a pipefitter actually in Concord, N.H., at that time and had gone up to Bread Loaf Writers' Conference 'cause I admired his work and I saw his name on an advertisement and had taken a week off work and drove up to Vermont to be a participant in this conference.

And he - this was another case of a guy who was glad I had a driver's license who'd befriend me because Algren, like a lot of American novelists of the open road, didn't have a driver's license, like Jack Kerouac, and needed me to drive him around. So - which I happily did. But he was a little larger than that and had a greater sense of his own responsibility and power than that and became a kind of a mentor and model, in some ways, for me in very important ways when I was a young writer that lasted. And they last even to today. I mean, I'll still sometimes find myself saying, well, I wonder what Nelson would do. What would he say here? What would he - how would he handle this situation?

GROSS: Did he help you figure out that you could use the stuff of your life as the subject of fiction?

BANKS: Yeah, absolutely - that you could bear witness and that bearing witness was important and at the center of American literature, really - I mean, going back to Whitman.

BIANCULLI: Russell Banks speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. The author of "Continental Drift," "Affliction" and "The Sweet Hereafter" died last Sunday at age 82. After a break, we revisit an interview with photographer Larry Sultan, whose pictures are the inspiration for a new Broadway show. Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the novel "Sam" by Allegra Goodman. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "No Bears," one of his favorite movies from last year. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.