Loss seems to be the way of life in the American Northeast, far above the metropolitan areas of the urban sprawls that make up most of the coastline. Loss is prevalent, as is alcoholism, depression, poverty, and a certain sense that the American dream is not possible in its most simplistic form.
Russell Banks's stories, in the compact lives through which he threads his favorite themes, are alive. They breathe, a nasty beer-laden, smoke-filled breath in your face. They yell at you as if they need hearing aids. They sneak in front of you in line at the supermarket and then never have enough money to pay for their cartloads. Every story is alive, even the ones in which no one is doing much of anything but dying. THE ANGEL ON THE ROOF brings together the author's own handpicked collection of stories from the last 40 years of his career, some new, most of them old, all of them haunting, cold, desolate.
Banks doesn't know from happiness --- there isn't a lot of shared laughter and wonder in his stories. Take "The Child Screams and Looks Back at You." Nice title, first of all --- it's strange, makes you think. Then a horrible idea eventually takes shape: "...there is only blood emptying out of his body; and you cannot staunch its flow, but must stand there and watch your child's miraculous, mysterious life disappear before you. For that is they key that unlocks these awful visions --- your child's being simply alive is both miracle and mystery; and therefore it seems both natural and understandable that he should be dead." Yikes! This is a writer who is quite serious about the most awful moments of life, the most low-down, dirty, shameful, horrific and depressing moments --- what do you do after you've been fired; let's go down memory lane as a mother is forced to watch her son die from what she thought was the flu; a girlfriend a man is ashamed to be seen with dies, and he thinks about her spirit and how he treated her.
There are so many afterthoughts here --- it's as if Banks is a reporter of only that which has happened and not that which is about to happen or could happen. He is around every sad and fearful corner, listening in on private heartbreak at tables and counters all around upstate New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, states where the winters reign at their bleakest. THE ANGEL ON THE ROOF brings these stories together in such a right order that you feel as if you are reading WINESBURG, OHIO all over again, visiting the wretched masses of some small town, hearing their most desperate pleas, their most painful moments revisited.
His attention to detail notwithstanding, it is the compassion and empathy with which he expressly hands out the knowledge he has of his characters' inner lives, their passions and sorrows, that make the stories so compelling. Even when he gets political, venturing to Africa and other faraway lands, the issues of race and gender and love that wash over every story's hard-packed shore can wrack your heart with sadness. Russell Banks is a fine novelist, a decent screenwriter, but an altogether skilled and disturbing short story writer. This is far beyond happy summer beach reading --- this is serious, serious business. Encounter THE ANGEL ON THE ROOF at your own risk.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 20, 2011
The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks