Pulp fiction

Russell Banks dips into the mainstream in The Reserve
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 29, 2008

UNCONSOLING: No one is the equal of Banks in orchestrating a shitstorm for his hapless creations.

The Reserve | by Russell Banks | Harper | 304 pages | $24.95

The forbidding, remorseless Russell Banks has finally conceded to popular literature. The popular literature, that is, of the 1930s, when Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett were selling at a good clip.

Of those two, only the former gets a direct mention in the book. He is, among other things, rumored to be one of Vanessa Von Heidenstamm’s many famous lovers. As imposing as her name, Vanessa is the irresistibly seductive, possibly insane adopted daughter of Dr. Cole, a pioneer in the new technique of pre-frontal lobotomies, and his brittle but still beautiful wife, Evelyn. When the celebrated leftist artist Jordan Groves (modeled on Rockwell Kent, with a nod to For Whom the Bell Tolls) lands his seaplane (when was the last time you read a novel with a seaplane?) on the Second Lake in the Tamarack Reserve to visit Rangeview, Dr. Coles’s summer cabin, he realizes at once that the stunning woman moping alone on the shore is trouble. But before this Independence Day in 1936 is over, a Götterdämmerung of adultery, death, and desperate deception will have been set in motion.

Gentlemen, rip your bodices. This may be the most generically plot-heavy of Banks’s novels, with purplish prose to match: “Vanessa obeyed, but glanced back at Jordan like a cat who’d been interrupted at her meal and would soon return”; and “No, you’re like me, Vanessa Von Heidenstamm. And people like you and me, we leave a lot of wreckage behind us.” But that’s only part of the fun. The story revolves less around plot than around point of view: Jordan’s meticulous, sensual voyeurism, immersed in the object, but lacking in introspection and empathy; Vanessa’s exhibitionism (she’s a Hammett femme fatale to be sure, but she also anticipates the kooky younger sister in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep), her need to be defined and granted existence by the gaze of others. They clash but are ineluctably drawn to each other, sucking everyone else into their folie à deux: Jordan’s long-suffering wife, Alicia; Alicia’s local-yokel lover, Hubert; the mentally fragile and self-deluded Evelyn Cole. Each glimpses enough of the truth to misinterpret it and act with tragic inappropriateness.

Overseeing all these feckless voices is the omniscience of the novelist, as epitomized in the italicized narrative that opens each chapter, its prose resembling the blunt clarity of Hemingway at his Olympian best. These passages describe what might be an epilogue rich in unconsoling ironies. For no one is the equal of Banks in orchestrating a shitstorm for his hapless creations. The looming specter of the doomed zeppelin the Hindenburg is no empty omen, and neither are the references to the Civil War in Spain, just then reaching its peak of popularity with the idealists of the art crowd and the avant-garde.

Banks seems to relax and find exhilaration in his nostalgic, juicy artifice, and the reader will as well. He also allows his hero to find temporary shelter in it: “He [Jordan] thought of Ernest Hemingway’s stories and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. That was the style he needed, and he felt that if he could keep on affecting it, he could become it, and she would become it, too.”

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