The novelist Russell Banks died on January 7, 2023. We are publishing this appreciation of his work by Beth Henson that first appeared in Race Traitor #10 (Winter, 1999). Beth does a wonderful job describing Russell Banks’s “voyages” through the discontents of people’s daily lives. The Hard Crackers editors are especially thankful to Beth for agreeing to let us post her article.
Russell Banks is doing through fiction what the editors of RACE TRAITOR are attempting to do through the pages of the journal: accompany readers on a voyage through whiteness and its discontents.
0f all his characters, it is the guinea-pig lady (in Trailer Park) who speaks most to me: she has been abused, neglected, and institutionalized, and now, finally on her own, she has retired to a trailer park in northern New Hampshire and goes looking for a pet tropical fish to share her days. Instead, she brings home a pair of guinea pigs. In no time she has enough guinea pigs to trouble her neighbors at the Granite State Trailerpark.
“If you take good care of them, they thrive.” She alone of all Banks’ characters has managed to break the cycle of abuse, by finding herself something to care for; she spends her time constructing cages and feeding-systems for her babies. Alone in the world, a figure of ridicule, she marches singing through her daily rounds. Her neighbors react with growing consternation. Forced to a showdown, deprived of her pets, she gives up on civilization altogether and moves to a tarpaper shack in the woods.
Until John Brown, most of the men in Russell Banks’s work are a sorry lot, steeped in alcohol and violence, prone to runaway obsessions, mired in poverty and powerlessness in the long winters in small New England mill towns where first agriculture and then industry have headed out and gone and the best get away early. (“Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town….”) Those left behind are ashamed of staying; urban people move in and renovate, commute to the city, glide through town in their BMWs, and give the old-timers in their shabby clapboard dwellings an additional cause for resentment. These are small towns that have lost the coherence that once made them communities, where marriages go bad from dead-end jobs, too little money and not enough hope, where haggard mothers share a beer at the kitchen table while the men drink at the tavern and shout the refrain, “Nobody screws me over.” Here are the discontents of working people—free, white, and 21 and enraged with the barrenness of their lives. The anguish of the middle class is left to others to tell. Banks is the poet of working-class rage.
Banks is relentless in his depiction of the miseries of everyday life; his characters get no relief. Marriage saves no one; the celebrants enter already weighed down with the violence of their early lives, the tedium and degradation of their jobs, and confusion in the sexual sphere, and there they drown. Once divorced, they exchange partners and meet in shabby motel rooms, not quite friends and not in love. There is nothing so grim as an episode of adultery described by Banks.
Bob DuBois, of Continental Drift, is a dreamer without a vision, a drifter, as the title indicates. He does not know what the new world he yearns for would look like. The high point of his life was being a hockey champion in high school. His only notion of the good life is material: a boat, a big house, a fast car. Too ineffectual for the life of crime his brother and best friend offer, he knows only how to be a victim. In a fit of Christmas-induced self-pity, he leaves New Hampshire and his job as an oil burner repairman, and takes his family to Florida, the southern frontier, in pursuit of the American Dream. Flight solves nothing and brings only a change in climate; he winds up with another deadend job, this time with the added humiliation of working for his brother, Fast Eddie, the hustler. DuBois, to his credit, is a step forward from the violent men who beat their wives at the end of the day: he practices random acts of kindness on his way to doom, loving his wife as he cheats on her and drags her to hell and back. He’s the new man in embryo, ineffective but not violent, at least not with his fists.
In counterpoint to the story of Bob DuBois, the book traces the travails of Claude and Vanise Dorsinville, from the Haitian backcountry, as they flee north to Florida, their circumstances more desperate but also typical of their time and place. They, too, are the ordinary workers of their country. Florida is no idyll but it does bring DuBois into contact with black folk. When he first arrives, he drowns his uneasiness in a full-time obsession with Marguerite, a nurse whose aging father works with Bob. Despite—or in addition to her beauty—Bob wants her as a black woman, a sexual challenge. A weak man with a strong imagination, he allows his infatuation to consume him, leaving his family to fend for themselves. His wife is pregnant, one of his daughters is having trouble in school, and then, just as arbitrarily, he rejects Marguerite, making a scene at her house. Attracted and repelled, unable to imagine a life with her, he leaves her when his son is born. Throughout the affair, she behaves with a decency and dignity that contrasts with his chaotic and unintentional cruelty.
Feckless and given to impulsive gestures, DuBois finally runs out of room. His life resembles the drift of tectonic plates, or the shifting migrations of exile and exodus that follow land reform and revolution and counter-revolution and price speculation and famine.
Bone, in Rule of the Bone, the boy made homeless by an abusive stepfather, drifts through a world of malls, petty theft, dealing, and vandalism. When his homeboy Russell, his partner in crime, announces that he is returning to Aunt Doris to go back to school and get a job in construction, Bone insists on his birthright of freedom—to get high, listen to music, hang out with his friends, and be left alone. Bone believes that Americans have rights. “This is America, they can’t buy and sell little kids here, we’re free,” he tells Froggie, another homeless child, as he rescues her from a pederast. They stumble on an unlikely Eden: an old Rastafarian, I-Man, living in a school bus and cultivating veggies and ganja on a vacant lot. Together they tend the crops, cook vegetarian, sit on the stoop in the evening, and share a spliff while I-Man expounds his cosmology. Bone has found himself a family. They are Huck and Jim on the raft. A young boy running away from respectability and school—and sexual abuse—and the kindly old man, what a father should be, himself a fugitive, an illegal alien subject to deportation and worse.
They go to Jamaica where Bone serves as I-Man’s apprentice dealer and grower until, in a serendipitous meeting, he hooks up with his birth father, an expatriate cokehead and self-appointed doctor, who lives with his Jamaican family in Kingston and also with his wealthy girlfriend Evening Star in Montego Bay, where she keeps her mansion ready to receive her white women friends, down for Jamaican studs, pool parties, and cigar-sized blunts.
Bone knows he’s not black, though he’s been admitted to certain Rastafarian initiation rites. Stumbling on a murder scene, he is spared because he is Doc’s white son. If Bone had been a real Rasta like he pretended, he’d be dead, and he knows it. We leave Bone drifting, after he flees Jamaica, crewing for an American captain offering cut-rate Caribbean cruises. On the ship are two rich kids, neglected by their parents, who are cold and self-absorbed. Bone’s pity for the children is exquisite; he has become a person who can love. He imagines I-Man sending him a message through the stars: “Up to you, Bone.” He has become autonomous.
“REMEMBER THEM THAT ARE IN BONDS AS BOUND WITH THEM.”
The central figure in Banks’s most recent novel, Cloudsplitter, is John Brown. When asked why he chose to write about Brown, Banks said, “Because he is the one figure whom white Americans universally regard as a madman and black Americans as a hero.” Early in the novel, he concludes a discussion of Brown’s sanity—the only question that matters—by saying, “For if he was sane, then terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North America, are true.”
What terrible truth is revealed by John Brown’s sanity? That race and its consequences are evil and must be destroyed and that this is a mission worthy of dedicating one’s life to. He alone among the abolitionists of his time believed that the barriers of race could be dissolved and he identified so completely with the slave as to take that cause as his own. For this he was judged mad. What made Brown, among the thousands who agitated against slavery, unique? How did he, alone, come to the conclusion he came to: to engage in bloody acts of war, to be the advance force, to hurl himself into battle when no one else was willing to act?
John Brown is the common man who is able to confront the disappointment and frustration of everyday life and to distill the essence of its wickedness, to find the pivot around which it turns and name it in order to combat it. The name he gave was slavery. In the mid-nineteenth century, slavery was no secret, concealed within the confines of the southern plantation. Its ravages were well documented. Nothing more than the workings of ordinary human sympathy is needed to explain the horror Brown feels when, a child himself, he realizes that the child he befriends while traveling on his family’s business, an intelligent and sympathetic boy his own age, is subject to beatings and ill treatment, without a mother or father to protect him: a slave. The trauma caused by that meeting stayed with him all his life.
Brown was a deeply religious man, of Puritan forebears and manners, and once he had identified the central evil of his day, he had to work to stamp it out. Slavery is sin, and he would not rest until that sin was eradicated. By his reading of the Bible, slavery held the entire nation, white as well as black, under Satanic Rule. New England’s “dark, Satanic mills,” fed by the cotton plantations, are a devilish encroachment on the family farm and domestic manufacture that formed the backbone of Puritan virtue—the family as a self-reliant economic unit, the community as a free association of equals. Brown rightly saw the labor of the slave as the cornerstone of the accumulation of unearned wealth that fueled the spread of northern industry. All this was to be inexorably overturned. In 1839, after reading aloud through the northern winter night from a collection of contemporary accounts of the horrors of slavery, he and his family swore a blood feud with it.
He was an ordinary man who had to continually battle to return to his mission. He spent decades absorbed in land speculation, livestock trading, and resulting lawsuits, finally declaring bankruptcy and losing the family homestead, which was only one of many removals to which his large and long-suffering family were subjected. His failure in business is sometimes remarked by his detractors as if it were an impetus to compensatory revolutionary zeal, but it was the other way around: he desired only enough success to free him from financial worries so he could pursue the eradication of slavery single-mindedly.
By the time of Harper’s Ferry, Brown was not alone in opposing slavery; the Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, created new possibilities. Previously, the slaveholder and his agent had retained the burden of proving someone a runaway slave; now the burden was on the accused. Any black person could be kidnapped, hauled off and sold—made into property—with forged papers and the word of a slaveholder’s agent. Every northern public official was forced to act on behalf of the slaveholders, making the entire population of the north complicit in slavery as never before. The North was galvanized into protest and resistance.
Brown, always ahead of the anti-slavery forces, began to say, “Pro-slavers are fair game.” The South, he declared, had established conditions of war. The courts of law of the state of Virginia had now displaced the courts of Massachusetts. (The abolitionist Wendell Phillips addressed his New England audiences, “Fellow subjects of Virginia…”)
Brown insisted on being a sovereign and autonomous force within the Underground Railway; he alone evaluated the links which fed into his stretch of the railway. Arriving in the Adirondacks, he refused to work with a man he considered unreliable, replacing one route with another of his own invention. He was suspicious of whites, abolitionists included. In organizing his first militia, the Gileadites, in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1851, he relied solely on his sons and the resident Negro population. “Let the white folks make their own policy, as they always have. We must have our own.” He would draw his forces from the folks whose lives were on the line, the free blacks of the North. He sought soldiers, not pacifists, politicians, or poets. By running the Railroad with blacks and not whites, he would ensure that the cost of maintaining the Peculiar Institution become prohibitive.
John Brown proposed to build a guerilla army in the mountain strongholds which led from South to North through the Alleghenies to the Adirondacks, conducting raids into the South and providing an escape northward for noncombatants among the freed slaves. His plan was a militarization and an extension south of the Underground Railroad which he had been working with for decades.
The raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry was to be the opening skirmish of a popular war. The captured weapons would be used to arm a small band quartered in the nearby rugged mountains and the outcry generated by the raid would serve notice on the slaveholders that the war had begun. While slaves had been quietly stealing themselves away for years, an armed force beating at the very gates of the South would sweep away the social order. In fact, the mere threat implied by the failed raid did just that. In the words of Wendell Phillips, John Brown “startled the South into madness.” He made warriors of abolitionists and insurrectionists of slaves. He started the civil war.
One of Banks’s perennial themes is fathers and sons. Captivated by the legend of the noblest patriarch of all, he asks how it would be to be the son of a man who is not a cowardly and whiskey-ridden bully but a man of God, bigger than life. He creates the motherless one-armed Owen, through whose eyes the story is told. Owen is sexually repressed and full of doubts, a bulletin from the late 20th century in shepherd’s gear. He is tormented by race in ways the father is not; he feels ashamed and guilty for being white and unable to eliminate race-consciousness altogether: “Pride, lust, envy—these are the certain consequences of race-consciousness, whether you are white or black, just as they are the consequences of thinking constantly of your maleness or femaleness when in the presence of the other sex… You do not view yourself or the other person simply as a person.” His confusion is of a piece with his frustrated desire to prove his manhood by rebelling against his father; he has difficulty viewing himself simply as a person, self-motivated, autonomous.
Owen, not the Puritan soul but the troubled self, breaches the story’s Biblical dimensions and speaks to the motivations of non-believers. “In some countries the only life you can properly desire is that of a destroyer,” he remarks on visiting London for the first time, being astonished by its wealth and reflecting on the origin of its riches in the factories of Manchester and the sugar plantations of the colonies. In all of Banks’s work, Owen is the son who comes closest to emancipating himself from the patriarchy by becoming his father’s colleague, by shedding the first blood in Kansas and becoming his father’s captain and terrible sword.
But the son’s emancipation is incomplete. When the final drama unfolds at Harper’s Ferry, Owen has been assigned to wait with a wagon on the nearby heights and gather up escaping slaves and carry them into the mountains. As the slaves fail to gather and Brown’s forces are overrun, he watches the debacle until its outcome is assured, then simply drives away, heading west for California. In the end Owen proves to be as ineffective, alienated, and conflicted as any of Banks’s later protagonists.
In his old age, Owen professes to hold himself responsible for his father’s turn to violence. But this is false; John Brown has moved inexorably to war through the logic of his own opposition to slavery. “Slavery is evil: kill it.” No other path was open to Brown.
John Brown rejected his own race, and by his rage and permanent suspicion of whites gained the trust and admiration of blacks. In Owen’s words: “This matter of difference and sameness—the ways in which we were different from the Negroes and the same as the whites, and, vice versa, the ways in which we were the same as the Negroes and different from the whites—was a vexing one. If a white person persists, as we did, soon he will find himself uncomfortable with people of both races—with the one, because of his unwanted knowledge of their deepest loyalties and prejudices, for, as a fellow white, privy to their private race conversations and an adept at decoding those closed, tribal communiques, he understands their true motives and basic attitudes all too well; and uncomfortable with the other also, because, whenever he chooses to allow it, his pale skin will keep him safe from their predators.”
Turning colorless is no escape; the escape from color is itself a privilege granted solely to the white. Only by resisting the privilege of turning colorless can the white attain partial freedom. “He has to separate himself from the luxurious unconsciousness that characterizes his own race, without claiming as his own the historical experience of the other. There is a price, though. He pays with cold loneliness, an itching inner solitude, a permanent feeling of separation from his tribe. He has to be willing to lose his own history without gaining another.” Such is Banks’s appreciation of the paradox of John Brown, the founder of a tribe of race traitors, neither white nor black.
The presence of the historic figure burns incandescent through the novel’s rocking-horse rhythms, through the psychological dimension and the repressed love interests of the fictionalized Owen. Such is the power of the man, 150 years after his death, that the question raised by his sanity still confronts us: if race and its consequences are evil, then what do we, its purported beneficiaries, propose to do about it? What is the ordinary white to do?
Will Bone grow up to be the 21st century John Brown?