Tributes for Russell Banks, the American novelist who died on Saturday

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During America’s renewed mania for book banning, I was disappointed that “Rule of the Bone” didn’t inspire more prigs to start collecting dry sticks. When it came out in 1995, Russell Banks’ graphic, drug-fueled novel about a troubled 14-year-old boy caused a predictable uproar. But now it’s not even on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Challenging Books list.

Could “Rule of the Bone” have fallen so far into oblivion without engaging disaffected teenagers and shocking a new generation of censorship politicians?

God forbid, because we need Banks’ work now more than ever.

Banks, who died on Saturday at the age of 82, was the author of 14 novels, along with several works of non-fiction, books of poetry and collections of short stories. His fiction was unrelentingly serious, reflecting the scale and scope of what was at stake for conscience-ridden beings. In one way or another, it is the theme of all fiction, but few novelists have grappled so strongly with the emotional pain of not living up to our ideals. He has developed a special expertise in the way national and personal mourning are mixed.

One of his greatest novels, “Continental Drift” (1985), brings the American dream to life. His epic masterpiece, “Cloudsplitter” — a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — recalls the life of violent abolitionist John Brown. “The Darling” (2004) follows the disillusionment of a member of the Weather Underground who flees to Liberia and becomes embroiled in that country’s gruesome civil war.

“Rule of the Bone” is no less brutal, but more intimate and implicit in its commentary on the conflicted state of our nation’s soul. The teenage narrator, Chappie, is homeless. It’s a blessing of sorts given his abusive stepfather’s behavior, but life itself is a series of harrowing trials.

When I taught English, I sometimes recommended “Rule of the Bone” to mature students who enjoyed “The Catcher in the Rye” but were beginning to find Holden Caulfield a little twee. As many critics have noted, Chappie is closer to Huck Finn, another vulnerable outcast boy who escapes through the bars of American society.

“People don’t really know how children think,” says Chappie. “I guess they forget.”

Banks never forgot. He remembered children’s infinite capacity for kindness, their fragile hopes, and especially their deep confusion.

“When you’re a kid,” says Chappie, “it’s like wearing these binoculars strapped to your eyes and you can’t see anything but what’s in the center of the lens because you’re too afraid of everything else or you don’t understand it, and people expect you to, so you you feel stupid all the time.”

‘The Magic Kingdom’, the latest novel by Russell Banks, reveals a lost paradise

Banks’ own vision was miraculously bifocal. If one eye was attached to a telescope pointed at the past, the other was always looking through a microscope into the psyche. His latest novel, “The Magic Kingdom” — published just two months ago — shows the remarkable persistence of his talent, particularly his attention to the agony of broken innocence.

The story is about Harley, a boy raised by philosophical fanatics who arose on the soil of American radical utopian movements in the late 19th century. He and his family eventually found refuge in a Shaker settlement in Florida. The demands of complete purity in this isolated community are compounded by the insistence on complete openness and unlimited love for one another. Although based on the historical events surrounding what is now Disney World, “The Magic Kingdom” is more interested in exploring the rough spiritual geography that Harley must confront. How, the novel asks, will this young man live according to impossible ideals that go beyond his good intentions?

“I was a hair-raising moralist, judgmental and proud,” Harley admits many decades later. “The Shakers hated hypocrisy as fiercely as I do, or as fiercely as any thoughtful child hates hypocrisy.”

Few of us live in utopian communities, but many of us swear – implicitly or explicitly – allegiance to lofty political and ethical values. And fortunately, most of us retain at least some hatred of hypocrisy throughout our lives, even as life inevitably pushes us into compromises, betrayals, and failures. Ignoring that discomfort is not a sign of maturity; it is a symptom of moral idiocy.

Banks understood this terrifying predicament and explored it in his literature with more fearless sensitivity than any other contemporary American novelist. The result was an inevitable but always thoughtful sadness that permeated his work. With a less resilient writer, this melancholy would have turned into despair. But even as they gaze into the abyss, Banks’s characters are never allowed that escape.

His penultimate novel, “Foregone,” is about a documentary filmmaker dying of cancer, which is ultimately what killed Banks. Despite the fugue of the hospice, the director continues to study his past, confessing his sins, grasping repentance.

“There is no more unfinished business for future protection and promotion,” Banks writes. “Without unrealized career ambitions. No one was impressed. Nothing to gain or lose.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Banks. You deserved it.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes Bulletin of the Literary Club for The Washington Post.

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