Books Made of Paper

Russell Banks: ‘Success Stories’

Success Stories is a book of short stories by the kick a$$ Russell Banks. He writes a lot about New Hampshire and working-class men, which as I write this, I realize probably does not sound very enticing to this audience. It doesn’t sound very enticing to me. But in these cold, snowy books, he zeroes in on evil tendencies of human nature—how about that? And in this book, there’s some humor thrown in there to cut through all that dark stuff in stories like “Children’s Stories” about devilish little children who don’t just drive their parents nuts, but actually cause them bodily harm. Told from the parents’ point of view, these kids are demons and must be stopped. The parents fear for their lives. In Banks’s imagined world, they share those feelings real parents surely have–guiltily, privately, unthinkably– after an exhausting day of the terrible twos. A snippet:

“’What are we going to do?’ one of the parents wonders.

‘Just pray that they soon grow up and become adults themselves.’”

In another story, a handsome, well dressed man has a love affair with the ugliest woman he’s ever met. Really, that’s pretty much what happens in the story. It sounds offensive, but it was kind of like watching a train wreck. It’s told from his perspective years later, wondering what it all meant.

Several of the stories are connected (and scattered throughout the book. I kind of wish they had all been printed consecutively as a novella). We follow this kid Earl, from New Hampshire, as he grows up and after remarkably getting into an Ivy League school, he promptly drops out and moves to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he learns a thing or two about life and decision making. When he’s a kid, you hope for Earl and his family’s situation to improve, because of what you find out about his absent father and pitiful mother. As an adult, he’s still trying to get somewhere in life  but he becomes the pitiful one, and after a series of bad decisions, starting with dropping out of college, you start to wonder why it had to be this way. I think that’s another common theme for Banks. Why did it have to be this way? Aren’t we all feeling a bit like this at the moment?

Characters from troubled families is one of Banks’s specialties, and something he does particularly well in the youthful, fun, fast-paced book, Rule of the Bone, about a teenager who goes on an adventure with a Rastafarian. If you haven’t read Russell Banks yet, maybe start with that one.

On another note, do you, dear readers, read very many books by men? I feel some (possibly imagined) pressure to write about books by women on this blog, but in reality I read a pretty equal split of the sexes. I get the impression there’s more interest in female-written books, or is that my overactive imagination? I’d love to know if you lean more female or male in your book reading and why. Do you relate more to a woman’s story?

Images from Indie Bound