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American Spirits


American Spirits

Barring some additional posthumous works, AMERICAN SPIRITS will be the final book from the esteemed American writer Russell Banks, who died in January 2023 at age 82. If that’s the case, this volume of three taut and often shocking long stories is a fitting summing up of important preoccupations of Banks’ long and prolific career. Each travels deeply into the lives of ordinary people, while illuminating some of the fissures in contemporary America.

In AMERICAN SPIRITS, Banks returns to the fictional upstate New York town of Sam Dent, the setting of his 1991 novel, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, the story of a tragic school bus crash and its aftermath that devastated the town. Home to about a thousand residents, it’s surrounded by gorgeous dense forests, rivers and mountains, an environment that Banks describes with care and affectionate attention to detail. In each of the tightly plotted and propulsive stories that compose the volume, narrated by an unidentified townsperson, Banks almost immediately establishes a conflict and then expertly winds the tension until it culminates in an unpredictable, profoundly unsettling climax.

"The three stories in AMERICAN SPIRITS are models of the form and collectively serve as an eloquent valedictory by one of the most accomplished writers in modern American literature."

“Nowhere Man” explores a confrontation between Doug Lafleur, a lifelong Sam Dent resident, and Yuri Zingerman, a physically intimidating character and veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces who runs a company that provides security to high-profile clients. He moves to Sam Dent from New Jersey after purchasing 320 wooded acres from Doug and his two sisters adjacent to the property where Doug lives in straitened economic circumstances with his wife and three children.

Soon, the property Yuri claims he purchased for a private hunting preserve becomes a gathering place for what appear to be right-wing militia members who use it for ear-shattering target practice and the occasional explosion. In a series of letters to the editor of the local paper, Doug goes public with his complaints about Yuri and his “trigger-happy bomb-making extremists.”

But Doug is no outraged liberal protesting the disruption of his peace and quiet. Indeed, he’s a supporter of Donald Trump, an avid hunter and a vigorous defender of his Second Amendment rights. In normal circumstances, he and Yuri are two men whom one would expect to quickly form a natural bond. That they don’t is the genius of Banks’ story. Instead, frustrated by Yuri’s revocation of Doug’s family’s hunting privileges on land they owned for 70-some years, Doug provokes a dangerous clash of wills with a man he “both envied and admired and whom he hated and mistrusted.”

Doug’s tragedy is his failure to understand that he’s fighting a powerful adversary from a position of weakness that has nothing to do with a shortage of lethal firepower or the lack of knowledge of the martial arts that Yuri possesses. A fateful confrontation between the two men feels inevitable from the time of their first encounter, and Banks delivers a gut-wrenching one.

In “Homeschooling,” Banks describes two families living in identical Victorian houses on a rural road high above the “down-at-the-heels north country village” that is Sam Dent. Kenneth Odell, who works in an administrative position at the county correctional facility, lives in one of the homes with his wife, Barbara, and their three young children. Their next-door neighbors, married white lesbians Judith and Claire Weber, are parents to four adopted Black children they’ve rescued from their addicted mother in Texas.

The Odells’ curiosity about their next-door neighbors’ monastic, near cult-like lifestyle curdles into profound concern after two of the children appear at their door begging for food and exhibiting signs of abuse. Once again, Banks skillfully demonstrates how the law of unintended consequences plays out after Kenneth and Barbara are moved to well-meaning but ultimately disastrous action by the children’s plight.

“Kidnapped,” the volume’s final story, follows the unraveling of an ill-conceived drug deal. Frank Dent, a direct descendant of the man whose bequest of 2,000 acres (many of them obtained by illicit means) resulted in the founding of the town and gave it its unusual name, is kidnapped at gunpoint along with his wife, Bessie. They’re being held hostage by two Canadian drug dealers when their daughter, Amy, and her son, Stevie, fail to deliver on their end of a sizable transaction. The story methodically describes a situation that spins out of control in a series of episodes of escalating menace and violence.

In all three stories, Banks expertly and empathically brings to life the culture of small-town America. Two of these stories highlight how the lack of communication gives rise to tension between neighbors in a society where suspicion and distrust of the other have become all-too-common phenomena. Banks has always been interested in exploring the darkness lurking beneath the placid surface of rural normalcy, and he’s done so with considerable skill here. The three stories in AMERICAN SPIRITS are models of the form and collectively serve as an eloquent valedictory by one of the most accomplished writers in modern American literature.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 22, 2024

American Spirits
by Russell Banks

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593536770
  • ISBN-13: 9780593536773