Cautionary tale of privilege, bloodshed

October 10, 2004|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

The Darling, by Russell Banks. HarperCollins Publishers. 384 pages. $25.95.

In Russell Banks' extraordinary new novel, Hannah Musgrave, skilled bomb-maker, journeys from the Weather Underground to 1976 Liberia. Before a raging civil war catapults her back to America, she marries an assistant minister of public health, and bears him three sons. Now a "skinny, white-haired rich bitch," farming in the Adirondacks, Hannah offers a first person narrative so moving, so pitiless, so rare in contemporary fiction that it embodies Aristotelian catharsis: the reader is moved not only to pity, but to fear.

With the precise documentary exactitude that Banks brought to his depiction of Haiti in Continental Drift, he offers a mini-history of Liberia, "the first U.S. colony." The Americo-Liberians, descendants of slaves, dominate local tribes ("no reason for the whip hand to be white") with profits returning to American corporations. This ruling oligarchy unrelentingly pillages Liberia, a "money-changing station," of its natural resources. In this caldron, bearing the privilege of her white skin, Hannah defines the second act of her life.

Banks perceives brilliantly the toll that life among the Weather Under-ground has taken upon Hannah. Cold, with a "cool detachment from those who loved me," she is unable to experience affection, even for her own sons. Instead, she becomes a West African Jane Goodall, nurturing the beleaguered chimpanzees, whom circumstances will compel her to betray, as she betrays herself and her family. Banks' compassion for non-human beings is less theoretical than J.M. Coetzee's, more richly dramatized, and more persuasive.

Lurking throughout The Darling is Sam Clement, the CIA's pseudonymous resident agent, who presides cynically over the bloodshed. "He has chosen as his CIA war appellation the real name of that quintessential American, Mark Twain. Banks' point is that the United States at its core has become the planet's worst nightmare. The irony is doubly acute. Twain, the real Samuel Clemens, formed and led the Anti-Imperial League as its Vice-President from 1901 to 1910.

Banks's Clement controls Hannah as she engineers the escape from an American prison of renegade Charles Taylor, the CIA's man in Liberia. Clement personifies America in its ruthless disregard of the world's people -- a global tyranny that, Banks suggests, has led directly to the new "darker era" that arrives at the end of the novel when, on September 11, the blood flows at home.

In helping Taylor, Hannah believes she is performing a viable political act. In fact, she is ensuring the ruin of her sons, who become boy soldiers, "wild-eyed," vicious, mindless killers, people of whom she knows the reader will be frightened. Character flows from circumstance, ineluctably, and Hannah and her sons -- "Worse-than-Death," "Fly," and "Demonology" -- are "shaped, formed and deformed by time, place, and parents."

Banks is that rare epic novelist. Through Hannah's "cautionary tale," in this chronicle of the ruin of Liberia, he offers his elegy for a civilized planet and for an America worthy of its founders' ideals. Hannah, "an American darling," privileged and yet powerless, can rescue neither herself nor others, like the revolutionary hero of Banks' last novel, John Brown. No individual could.

Banks departs in "permanent mournfulness." Firmly established as a novelist of the first rank, his profound analytical vision arrives accompanied by earned and deeply felt emotion -- for the brutalized chimpanzees, for Hannah and her sons, for Liberia, for all of Africa, and, not least, for America.

Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University. Her latest book is In The Realm Of The Senses.

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