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The Angel on the Roof
ISBN 0060173963 / 9780060173968 / 0-06-017396-3
List price $27.50
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Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction) started out as a poet, and nowhere is this more evident than in his 37 years' worth of exquisite short stories, collected here in one hefty volume for the first time. In a mournfully lyrical phrase, he can evoke his characteristic landscape, the icy northeastern U.S.: "The air was crystalline, almost absent. The fields lay like aged plates of bone--dry, scoured by the cold until barren of possibility, incapable even of decomposition." Though his stories venture to Jamaica and Africa, Banks keeps coming back to New Hampshire and the themes of divorce, poverty, violence, and what he calls "the old father-and-son thing." He's not slumming in his trailer-park tales: his own drunken prole father beat him brutally, and Banks knows how grief and guilt shatter and unite families and small towns.
Characters often crop up in more than one story, giving the setting novelistic depth, drawing us into each life. In "Queen for a Day," we meet the young children of the Painter clan of New Hampshire as their dad is abandoning their mom, who then loses her job. "They run to her and wrap her in their arms... the three of them wind around each other like snakes moving in and out of one another's coils." In "Firewood," Painter's grown children rebuff his offer of fuel for their hearth, repaying his indifference, and Banks gives us a bad-guy's-eye view of their shared loneliness. In "The Fisherman," a $50,000 lottery is won by an old ice fisherman who stashes it in a cigar box, eliciting character-revealing reactions from the trailer-park denizens. "Dis Bwoy, Him Gwan" further reveals why the local pothead Bruce Severance so urgently needs the fisherman's money. The stories resonate and illuminate each other, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the collection has the cohesiveness of a 500-page novel. Banks's prose has the stark grace of classical tragedy. He's a poet after all. --Tim Appelo [via]