Russell Banks visits familiar territory with his short-story collection A Permanent Member of the Family. Despite the familiarity, there are surprises: amid the widowed, the divorced, and the abandoned, the drunks and losers, the guilt-ridden and the down-and-out, we find a MacArthur Fellow and his friends. And although most of the settings and characters feel familiar, nearly all the stories avoid taking a predictable course.
Banks paints characters with the easy skill of an Impressionist master; a few quick strokes and the character appears clearly in the reader’s mind. He is brilliant with dialog, capturing the cadence and personality of speech. And while many of his stories are bleak, even distressing, he can also capture moments of exquisite tenderness, as he does in the story “Transplant,” about an encounter between a heart recipient and his donor’s young widow.
I don’t mean to suggest that Banks limits himself to writing about the troubled loners and losers who populate so many of these stories. In the library’s collection of his works you’ll find a novel about abolitionist John Brown and a book about Patten, Maine. For Banks at his most tender, read his novel The Sweet Hereafter.