Bereft parents sublimate their grief in a lawsuit

November 03, 1991|By Michael Boylan


Russell Banks.


254 pages. $19.95. Philosophy and a story you are compelled to finish -- such is the combination called "The Sweet Hereafter." A school bus full of children overturns on a snowy winter morning. Most of the children die.

An accident? What is an accident? Today, in the United States of America, we don't believe in accidents. Every tragedy has a villain and next to the villain is a legal entity with "deep pockets." We aim to punish those responsible (and along the way pocket a million or so for our sincere suffering). But then what? Does suing reverse the tragedy or bring on another of its own?

Mitchell Stephens, Esq., a New York lawyer who specializes in negligence suits, comes up to Sam Dent, N.Y., immediately after the accident. The bodies have not been buried. Still, Mitchell Stephens has three clients signed up and the basis for his case.

His intervention stops the grieving process for the dead and creates anew antipathy among the town's folk. By engaging in such a suit the people also must adopt several fictions: (a) that what happened was not an accident but the result of municipal negligence; (b) that bringing a lawsuit is not an avaricious grab for money, but the action of Justice fulfilled; (c) that somehow the town, each person, and the dead are better off because a lawsuit was filed.

All these fictions are forms of denial. By failing to confront the tragedy, one puts off healing and may create new, pernicious consequences. Yet that's how the people of Sam Dent respond to the bus accident. It is a scene that is repeated today with greater frequency. Instead of seeking the real causal agent (in this case the bus driver), we seek one that will serve other interests (such as becoming rich). The town needs to contemplate the lost children. What really was lost? What was their significance?

A town needs its children, just as much and in the same ways as a family does. It comes undone without them, turns a community into a wind-blown scattering of isolated individuals. . . . If I hadn't twice gotten accidentally pregnant, we might have lost touch with everything and everyone else and maybe never would have grown up ourselves. Our self-absorption was like the isolation that comes with great pain; it was like extreme sadness. Without our children, we might never have discovered our differences, which is what has made our abiding love for one another possible. We would have been like a pair of infatuated teenagers, drowning in each other's view of ourselves, so self-absorbed that we'd never have been able to help each other over the years the way we have.

I looked across to Billy Ansel and realized that what frightened and saddened me most about him was that he no longer loved anybody. All the man had was himself. And you can't love only yourself.

This is the real lesson to be learned. It is a profound one: Love and family offer the deepest meaning to life. It is a message contrary to the solipsistic times in which we live, but it is extremely important.

Russell Banks has written a fine novel. His first-person narrators interact very well and work to create a well-balanced, technically superb story. "The Sweet Hereafter" may be about loss, but the reader comes away enriched by one of the finest novels of the year.

Mr. Boylan is a poet and philosopher who lives in the Washington area.

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