Russell Banks dead: ‘Affliction’ author of ‘Sweet Hereafter’ aged 82
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NEW YORK – Russell Banks, an award-winning novelist who rooted novels like “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter” in the wintery, rural communities of his Northeast home and envisioned the dreams and downfalls of all modern workers, is the radical abolitionist John Brown died. He was 82.
Banks, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, died Saturday in upstate New York, his editor Dan Halpern told The Associated Press. Banks was being treated for cancer, Halpern said.
Joyce Carol Oates, who tweeted that Banks was a great American writer and a “beloved friend of so many,” said he died peacefully at his home.
“I loved Russell and loved his tremendous talent and generous heart,” Oates said. “‘Cloudsplitter’ [was] his masterpiece, but all his work is exceptional.”
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, and raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Banks was a self-proclaimed heir to 19th-century writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, who aspired to high art and had a deep understanding of the spirit of the country. He was the son of a plumber who often wrote about working-class families and those who died trying to break out, caught in a “kind of madness” that the past can be erased, and those like him who got away and survived and asked : “Why me, sir?”
Banks lived in Florida part of the year and had a home in Jamaica for a time, but he was essentially a northerner with an old Puritan’s sense of consequence. Snow fell a lot in his novels, whether it was The Sweet Hereafter, about the upstate New York community torn apart by a bus accident, or Affliction, about the distraught, divorced New Hampshire police officer crushed by his paranoid fantasies.
In Banks’ breakthrough breakthrough Continental Drift, released in 1985, oil burner repairman Bob Dubois flees his native New Hampshire and goes into business with his wealthy brother in Florida, only to find his brother’s life so hollow was like his own.
“His brother’s strut and swagger were empty from the start, and in a deep, barely conscious way, Bob knew that all along and forgave his strut and swagger simply because he knew they were empty. But he never thought it would come to anything,” Banks wrote.
Cloudsplitter was his most ambitious novel, a 750-page tale about John Brown and his unlikely attempt to free the country from slavery.
The story long predated Banks’ lifetime, but the inspiration was literally close to home. Banks lived near Brown’s burial site in North Elba, New York, and he stopped by often enough that Brown “became a kind of ghostly presence,” the author told the AP in 1998.
“Cloudsplitter” reads like a prequel to Bank’s contemporary work, an evocation of Hawthorne and other early influences. As son Owen Brown recalls, John Brown was a persecuted Old World man whose determination to free the slaves and punish the enslavers made his face burn like that of a revivalist.
“I was a boy; I was scared of my father’s face,” explains Banks’ narrator. “I remember father looking us straight in the eye and burning us with his eyes when he told us to meet him listen now. He had made up his mind to put his sins of pride and vanity behind him henceforth. And he would go out from here and make war on slavery. The time has come, he declared, and he wanted to cry out to the time connect.”
Banks was a Pulitzer finalist for Cloudsplitter in 1999 and was 13 years earlier for Continental Drift. His other honors included the Anisfeld Book Award for “Cloudsplitter” and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Two of his books were adapted into acclaimed film releases in the late 1990s: The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Ian Holm, and director Paul Schrader’s Affliction, which won James Coburn an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Recent work by Banks has included the story collection A Permanent Member of the Family and the 2021 novel Foregone, in which an American filmmaker who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War looks back on his impulsive youth – a backdrop , from which Banks knew the inside.
His books often told of absentee and otherwise failing fathers, and Banks’ own father, Earl Banks, was an alcoholic who the author says beat him as a child and left him with a permanently damaged left eye.
Russell was destined for other worlds, smart enough to be nicknamed “Teacher” in high school and become the first in his family to attend college and earn a full scholarship to Colgate University.
He was an idealist in search of ideals to adopt Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as a bible of sorts among countless young people of the 1960s. He left Colgate and headed south with dreams of joining Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army in Cuba, a quest that ended in St. Petersburg, Florida.
By his early 20s, he’d been married twice (and eventually had four kids), endured more than a few bar fights, wrote poetry so bad he later wished he’d burned it, worked for a time with his father as a plumber in New Hampshire and continued his education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He was in his mid-30s and nearing the end of his second marriage when he published his first collection of stories, Searching for Survivors, and his first novel, Family Life.
By the early 1990s, by the time he turned 50, he was an established author and had a lasting marriage to his fourth wife, poet Chase Twichell.
“Over the years, I believe I’ve been able to reconcile my anger with myself, and that has allowed me to be more clear as a person, as a writer, and – I hope – as a husband, father, and friend.” be,” he told Plowshares for an interview that appeared in the magazine’s Winter 1993-94 issue. “It’s very hard to be a decent person when you’re being ruled by anger you can’t understand. When you start gaining this understanding, you start being useful to other people.”