5 Reasons Why Every OBcean Should Read Russell Banks

by on January 2, 2018 · 0 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Brett Warnke

Russell Banks is an old New England white man.  But he’s a writer who pens better stories about the great swindle and hard times reality — the great jumble of contemporary America — than anyone alive.  He is possibly America’s greatest living writer.

Every OBcean should read his latest collection of short stories A Permanent Member of the Family, a book of 12 short stories that are relevant to us here on the beach.

Here’s five reasons why:

1. Disappearing Community:  Whether we like it or not, the world of OB’s small beach haven as a sanctuary for the weird, the wild, and the radical is under tremendous threat.  Lamentably, there’s little evidence that (without much more organization) it can survive the onslaught of market forces that threatens it.  Russell Banks writes about communities like ours, leaning on the knife’s edge of the brass-knuckle capitalism of 2017.

Several of Banks’s novels, like the astonishing books Continental Drift and Lost Memory of Skin, are set in the precarious cities of sinking Florida.  But it is not just the state itself that is vanishing — the bonds that hold communities and families together are dissolving even faster than the bufferlands of the coast.

New clans form:  the homeless, the working poor, the socially outcast.  Similarly, in Banks’s extraordinary novel Cloudsplitter, a first-person narration set in the chaos, corruption, and compromise of 1850s America, showed an antebellum world sailing into catastrophe.  As our neighbors disappear and vacation renters occupy the unaffordable condos beside us, Banks is more relevant than ever.

2. Parrots:  Yes, we have our own, notoriously chatty fowl.  Though, admittedly, Banks’s story “The Invisible Parrot,” focuses on Billy, a working-class kid and the moment of his first realization of a life bleaker and harsher than his own.  He stands in line at a liquor store where a flinty store-keeper, in an act of deliberate discourtesy, refuses to serve a woman waiting at the register.  Is it because of her race?  Her class?  Her outfit?  Billy sees the list in her hand and imagines a life of pain and disappointment before having to face his choice.  Looking at the enumerated envelope he muses, “It was as if her whole life were written there.”

3.  We’re Weird:  Yes, OB is an odd place.  Standing in line at the post office today, 1/3 members of the line wore dreadlocks, two had sweatered pets, and two had expanding gauges in their ears.

Banks’s characters in A Permanent Member of the Family include the kinds of people who work and live here in OB:  workers who take the bus to low-paying jobs, families who struggle to make ends meet as costs soar and the public sphere shrinks, and people who try (despite all indications that it will work out) to survive on their own terms.

Banks writes about retirees, casino bartenders — the mad, the hurt, the abandoned, and the lost.  In “Blue”, the best story in this collection, an African-American woman who has “worked hard and played by the rules” has saved and sacrificed for years in a coastal town.  She is preparing to buy a used car, her first.  She finds herself trapped in a car lot with a menacing guard dog, abandoned by passersby in Kafkaesque story of alienation and societal neglect.  When Banks read this story to a crowded hall in New York two summers ago when I was at Skidmore, the entire room was stone still for an hour, breathless in suspense.

4.  The Dispossessed:  80% of Ocean Beach is comprised of renters.  We have little say in the say of our most important mail, our monthly bill.  The lack of strong unions or a mass movement to demand affordable housing and rent control has left most OBceans to the whim of our landlords, be they good or ill.

In fiction like Trailer Park and in stories like “Outer Banks,” the author focuses on the precarious among us, aging Americans, ones who have seen a surge in suicide, futility, and homelessness in recent years.

As communities collapse and technology divides people from one another, the alienation and anxiety of those left out has grown; Banks captures those among us caught under the shadow of the bright glare in the DOW and NASDAQ numbers so often trumpeted as a sign of societal strength.

In Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter, a broken mill-town is faced with a tragedy and a deep desire for blame.  The regular folks, struggling with poverty and other common hardships, must decide how to respond:  Denial?  Fury?  Or acceptance?

In one of his most devastating stories, “The Green Door,” a sixty-four year old bartender narrator describes his resentments and the dark impulses he feels toward an entitled, drunken middle-class jerk slurping Long Islands, looking for a tip on a good whorehouse.  As the narrator describes the stubbed toes and lost races of his own mediocre past, the horrifying conclusion helped me more clearly understand the backlash and profound resentments that brought the country to the catastrophe of 2016.

5.  Literature is what we do here:  Let Mission Valley exalt its box stores and parking lots.  And let North Parkers dwell in their over-priced hipster hangouts.

Ocean Beach, meanwhile, has a long and very real history of political engagement.  We have fought for public parks, against imperialist wars, and in our few miles of coastal territory we still have the opportunity to fight the encroachments that would have San Diego transform into Miami, a frequent setting for Banks’s stories.  And while OB lacks the bookstores it once had, during a careful walk down our streets, one can still spot the gleam of a novel — junk culture has not vanquished us yet.

Russell Banks is our writer because he recalls the simple elegance and social courage in the novels of Martha Gellhorn, John Steinbeck, and George Orwell.  He is our writer because he is topical without being tedious.  Whether it is a cold, selfish man with a heart transplant who is faced with a request from his organ donor’s wife or an old man burying his dog during a rainstorm, Banks lets you feel that real stuff beneath the skin.

And his clean clear and nuanced prose helps us see the dirty realities, painful complexities and knife-to-the gut pain and pity of contemporary America.



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