You might know Russell Banks from his books that were made into movies—“Affliction” (1989) and “The Sweet Hereafter” (1991)—or you might be familiar with his award-winning novel “Continental Drift” (1985). I’d like to introduce you to the new Banks I’ve just discovered, the short story writer. “A Permanent Member of the Family,” the title story of his 2013 collection, reminds me how satisfying a small piece of writing can be in the hands of a pro like Banks.
This second entry packs a wallop in just 15 pages. The unnamed narrator is a literature professor at a small New Hampshire college who reminisces about the year he separated from his wife and daughters and moved to an abandoned house a half-mile away. It was the early ‘70s and the couple chose to practice joint custody, “a Solomonic solution to the rending of family fabric.”
The ex-couple elaborately planned for weekday, weekend and vacation supervision of the girls but tried to keep it simple with the two pets. He would get Scooter, a big Maine coon cat he had fed each morning when it returned from a night of prowling “looking like a boxer who needed a good cut man.” His wife and girls would keep little Sarge, their elderly, arthritic part-poodle, surprisingly a female with that name.
So Sarge followed the girls to their dad’s house every visit, and days later when they went back home the dog would not leave with them. “Her preference was clear, although her reasons were not.” She refused to be leashed “and went limp like an antiwar demonstrator arrested for trespass” and would not stand or walk. The wife, smelling inequality, called immediately each time and screamed for him to “bring the dog home,” but Sarge knew her mind. Banks’ subtle writing about the dissolution of this family is deeply affecting.
Many of the characters populating the stories live hardscrabble lives in upstate New York or Florida. As in the title story, many characters are in times of transition. In “Snowbirds” Isabel had finally convinced her husband to winter in Florida, when during a tennis lesson, he “dropped to his knees as if he’d won the final at Wimbledon and died of a heart attack.” In “Outer Banks,” a newly retired couple, traveling south in a RV, look for an appropriate place to bury their beloved dog that just died.
Others stories show people at a vulnerable moment. Harold in “Christmas Party” is invited to celebrate the season at the home of his ex-wife and her new husband, Harold’s former best friend. “Help us decorate the tree! Bring an ornament!” the invitation enthuses. In “Lost and Found,” at a convention of fellow plumbing professionals, “most of them middle-aged and older men with wives at home,” Stanley runs into Ellen, a Marriott events coordinator with whom he had a fleeting affair years earlier and now harbors unsettled feelings.
The stories are not consistently strong, but so many are beauties that I can recommend this collection with confidence.