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A Permanent Member of the Family

By Russell Banks

Ecco

240 pages, $25.99

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

There are 12 stories in veteran author Russell Banks’ powerful new collection – each told with a stunning paucity of words, yet each possessing the depth and complexity of a finely wrought novel.

Whole worlds are thus packed into this volume, titled “A Permanent Member of the Family” – paradoxically, for each story is, in one way or another, about impermanence.

“Former Marine,” the first of the lot, is the tale of a gruff, no-nonsense man called Connie, a father and grandfather who has breakfast every morning at the M & M Diner:

“He has known everyone in the place personally for most of their lives. They are all on their way to work. He, however, is not. He calls himself the Retiree, even though he never officially retired from anything, and nobody else calls him the Retiree. Eight months ago he was let go by Ray Piaggi at Ray’s Auction House. Like he was a helium-filled balloon on a string, he tells people. He sometimes adds that you know the economy is in trouble when even auctioneers start cutting back, indicating that it’s not his fault that he’s unemployed, using food stamps, on Medicaid, scraping by on social security and unemployment benefits that are about to run out. It’s the economy’s fault. And the fault of whoever the hell’s in charge of it.”

There you have (in a paragraph) Connie’s big picture – but not the sucker punch he will deliver at the story’s end, Banks being a master of the O. Henry finale.

In the title story, it is a dog named Sarge who calls the shots – at least in the eyes of the narrator, who, after separating from his wife, finds that Sarge refuses to be left behind. In fact, Sarge insists on going with our narrator:

“If Sarge had only agreed to traipse up and down the lane behind the girls, if she had agreed to accept joint custody, then my having left my wife could have been seen by all of us as an eccentric, impulsive, possibly even temporary, sleeping arrangement, and for the girls it could have been a bit like going on a continuous series of neighborhood camping trips with Dad. I would not have felt quite so guilty, and Louise would not have been so hurt and angry. The whole abandonment issue would have been ameliorated somewhat. The children would not have been so traumatized; their lives, as they see them today, would not have been permanently disfigured.”

Blame, denial (and their deflective cousins) loom large in Banks’ tales of life today – each a life not only fraught with resistance to its realities but so real-seeming, and often so dark, that a reader must literally hold his or her breath to navigate its inevitable dangers.

Plus, there is the temptation, while reading Banks, to devour his stories whole, and speedily – when they are best taken in slowly and savored. (Or you can do what I did: wolf them down the first time ’round, then reread them adagio, no more than one at a time.) For there is both subtlety and profundity here; stuff to be studied, particularly in such tales as “Transplant” in which Howard, a heart recipient, recoils upon learning that the widow of the young man whose heart pumps within him has asked to meet Howard.

“It’s my heart, damn it!” he says. Or is it? The widow’s request forces the question. It also pushes Howard into looking at how he has handled other life choices. How, for instance, he ruined his marriage: “When a terrible thing happens, and it’s your own damn fault, then there’s no closure, he thought.”

Harold, the focus of Banks’ story “Christmas Party,” does much the same thing, realizing that his former wife’s apparently prosperous and happy new life is “a repudiation of the past” he shared with her. “Sheila was the past that wouldn’t stop bleeding into his present,” he thinks.

Jane is the narrator of Banks’ unusual “Snow Birds,” a psychological study of loss and perhaps attendant desperation, that finds Jane’s friend Isabel facing the sudden death of her husband with what Jane can only call “grief-induced mania.” Comical and profound by turns, this is a story for the (older) ages, with such winning lines as, “George had taught math, and geometry, but Isabel had taught literature and art history, and the family regarded her as mildly eccentric, possible artistic.”

Miami Beach, where most of the story takes place, entices Jane as it did Isabel, Jane calling it “a new world, a semitropical, Latin American city where everything worked because it was not in Latin America.” Isabel’s “grief-induced mania” and its pull is unforgettable – as is the consequence of greatness depicted in Banks’ stellar piece “Big Dog.”

This is my favorite of the dozen, the tale of one day in the life of a (clearly insufferable) artist and academic who builds “elaborate installations the size of suburban living rooms out of American Standard plumbing supplies and kitchen and bathroom fixtures.”

In the afternoon, Erik learns he is the recipient of a MacArthur or “genius” grant, one of the uppermost plums of the creative world. Although cautioned to keep this to himself until the year’s distinguished winners are announced, by evening he is sharing the extraordinary news at a dinner party he attends with his longtime partner, Ellen.

What follows is a boozy “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scene in which Erik’s recognition and good fortune is neither celebrated nor even well-received. Instead, his success, met with envy and incredulity, severs him from the others, tainting rather than enhancing his closest relationships – and filling the reader with apprehension over what might come next.

This, like seven of the other stories in this fine collection, appeared originally in such periodicals as Esquire and Harper’s; “Big Dog” was published in the Skidmore College-based quarterly Salmagundi. (The author lives in Keene, N.Y., about an hour and a half from Skidmore’s Saratoga Springs.)

There is one story here, called “Blue,” that seems implausible in places and is so uncomfortable to read that you want to stop. But you don’t because you know in your bones that “Blue” is a masterpiece: a deep, often funny, terror-filled story that is about, well, everything, and that, once read, cannot be unread.

All of the stories in this collection are astonishing, and arrestingly, told. Each is heady, is heavy, is hard-hitting, and has wit and style, attraction and repulsion, and all of the other realities and accoutrements of life.

“The Green Door,” the last of the 12, features a protagonist in his 60s who whiles away time at a bar, seeing and hearing and sometimes speaking to whomever takes the stool beside him. At one point, he realizes that one overheard conversation “has stayed with me in a slightly irritating way, like a day-old bee sting.”

Banks’ stories are like that. Like the bell that cannot be unrung, they remain with us, in our conscious, our unconscious and, one suspects, our souls.

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.