Voice of the Father Adding to a string of fine novels -- some now made into movies -- Russell Banks brings abolitionist John Brown off the pages of history with 'Cloubsplitter'

March 01, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Russell Banks' Realtor has just bought one of his books.

" 'Hamilton Stark,' " she tells the novelist. "Was it your first?"

"Not my first," Banks says, then pauses. "My third. My second? No, my third, I'm pretty sure."

The effect is that of a fond father with so many children he can no longer remember their birth order. "Hamilton Stark" is one in a brood of nine novels, four short-story collections and three volumes of poetry written over 30-some years. It is the third -- Banks has gotten that right. He just needed a moment.

So many books, at once so different and yet alike. Stories of immigrants and America, stories of fathers and sons. Books set in his childhood home of New Hampshire, others in Florida and Jamaica. Books so small and distilled that they can be read in a single sitting. Books so grim that the violent characters seem to stalk the reader long past the final chapters.

And now, after years of delays, there are movies based on the books. Last year's "The Sweet Hereafter" won an award at Cannes and has been nominated for two Oscars. Director Paul Schrader has just finished "Affliction," once thought unfilmable because of its harrowing violence. Agnieszka Holland will direct Banks' own script of "Continental Drift," with Banks as one of the producers.

Banks' life is further complicated by his decision to scale back life in Princeton, after 16 years of teaching creative writing here. He is putting his house on the market, looking for a condo, so he can stay in touch with friends in the area.

So many books and projects, but for now Banks feels as if there were only one, the latest book, "Cloudsplitter" (HarperFlamingo, $27.50), about abolitionist John Brown. It overshadows everything that has come before it, just as the real Cloudsplitter -- also known as Mount Tahawus in the Adirondacks -- cast its shadow over what John Brown insisted his children call the Plains of Abraham. Just as Brown cast his shadow over his son, Owen, "Cloudsplitter's" unreliable but elegiac narrator.

Some of those close to Banks believe "Cloudsplitter" will, finally, establish him as one of the country's most important novelists -- as well-known, for example, as his Princeton colleague and friend, Toni Morrison. "This is the book Russell was born to write," says his editor, Robert Jones.

But for Banks, sitting in his Princeton study 10 days before the major reviews start appearing, such pronouncements are problematic. He is 57 and not as burly as one might expect from his reputation as a brawler in his youth.

"You don't want to say this is 'the big book,' because that means the next one is the small book," he says, drawing his words out thoughtfully. "It's just another book, a bead on the string.

"A bigger bead, or one cut from harder stone, perhaps. But just another bead."

A short history of the writer

The sprawling, complicated narrative of Banks' own life could produce a volume that could almost rival the 768-page "Cloudsplitter" in size and themes.

The three sons and one daughter of Earl and Florence Banks came into the world with few expectations heaped on them. Russell, the oldest, was beaten by his father until he was 12, when his father abandoned the family. Banks' mother moved her children from New Hampshire to Massachusetts. But Banks would be drawn back to the Granite State and his father, both in life and on the page.

A bright student, he won a scholarship to Colgate University, dropped out after eight weeks and headed to Florida, thinking he might join the revolution in Cuba. For him, Fidel Castro was yet another father figure.

Instead, Banks ended up staying in Florida, finding work as a window dresser. Married at 19, he was a father at 20. His peripatetic existence would, eventually, take him through college the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, into teaching and into three more marriages.

In the 1970s, as he grew more serious about writing, he returned to New Hampshire and supported himself by working as a plumber with his father. "We buried the hatchet, as it were. I got over my anger toward him, but I never stopped being careful around him," he says.

He had started publishing poetry in the late '60s, fancying himself another Walt Whitman. In 1975, he published his first novel, "Family Life," to some dismal reviews. But he came back the same year with a better-received collection of stories, "Searching for Survivors." In 1976, he received a Guggenheim fellowship, which led to a year in Jamaica with his second wife. With "The Book of Jamaica" and "Trailer Park," his career surged forward; the second marriage ended.

Yet this was the only time, Banks says, that he was dissatisfied with his place in the world of letters. "I thought, 'Gee, you know, I'm writing as well as I ever will, I get good reviews.' I didn't feel ignored. I did feel as if I were getting lost in the shuffle."

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