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Russell Banks
A Permanent Member of the Family
Ecco / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-061-85765-2
Publication Date: 11-12-2013
228 Pages; $25.99
Date Reviewed: 01-01-2014
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2014

Index:  General Fiction

The exception is the rule in much published fiction. We like to read about the woman who hears the voices of the dead, or the man who climbs the huge mountain, stories that by virtue of extraordinary characters get s sort of head start.

In 'A Permanent Member of the Family,' Russell Banks takes the opposite path, writing stories about aging men with bad job prospects, working women who save hard for a used car, divorcés, widows; the sort of folks you probably know. The result is a delightful, engaging, and often powerful collection of stories that pinpoint the lives of average people with careful details and a unique sensibility.

Eight of the twelve stories here appeared elsewhere in venues ranging from Conjunctions to Yale Review to a limited edition anthology edited by Roddy Doyle. The upshot is that for most readers, most or all of the stories will be new. That said, they're all strong enough to be enjoyably re-read in this new setting.

The first story, "Former Marine," takes a close look at a relationship we don't see often enough, as a father of three adult son finds himself in the sort of bind that good fathers are supposed to be able to avoid. Banks strips down the prose and story to a bare bones state that the father would appreciate. The title story brings in the first of many dogs you'll find in this collection, as well as the first of many divorcés. Here, the prose gets just a bit more effusive, with the right hints of lyricism in the first-person narrative.

"A Christmas Party" finds Harold Bilodeaux invited to his now-married ex's holiday do. Readers going through the collection in order will find his unsurprising fate nonetheless entertaining. Banks' sense of what comprises a short story ensures that readers are catapulted into the lives they so briefly visit during their short stay. It's an interesting effect that he manages again and again without using the same launchpoint.

For all the unhappy accuracy in the book, there's a lot of fun to be found here as well. Ventana, a working woman who saved for that car and now, armed with cash, goes to buy one, finds herself in an increasingly absurd and quite funny, situation. In "Snowbirds," we meet Idabel Pelham, easily the most cheerful widow to refrain from weeping you'll encounter on the printed page this year. Banks manages the very nice trick of finding humor in reality, of evoking laughter not from farce so much as from blunt, but not brutal, honesty.

The real grace to be found in these stories of very everyday Americans is the sense of balance that Bank so easily achieves. He never pushes too far or enters his tales with an agenda. The stories here are more like perfect photographs, snapshots that capture more than the images themselves. In these words, life finds a way out.

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