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Book Review

A Permanent Member of The Family by Russell Banks

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Publisher: The Clerkenwell Press, paperback

1 of 1 If you like Richard Ford, then you will very likely take to the work of this veteran writer whose fiction has been translated into twenty languages.
If you like Richard Ford, then you will very likely take to the work of this veteran writer whose fiction has been translated into twenty languages.

Russell Banks is perhaps not as well-known as he should be this side of the Atlantic. But if you like Richard Ford, then you will very likely take to the work of this veteran writer whose fiction has been translated into twenty languages. One reads on the flyleaf that he divides his time between up-state New York and Miami. Accordingly most of the stories in this fascinating collection are set in these locales.

The first story, Former Marine, turns on a fascinating conceit, and a very dark, unsmiling comedy  hovers at its edges. An elderly, impoverished father, the former marine of the title, is guilty of a serious offence. The offence has been detected by his three sons, each of whom are law enforcers of one kind or another.

The title story, A Permanent Member of The Family, centres on the significance of an arthritic old pet dog who insists on doing his own thing when a marriage breaks down. Three girls divide their time scrupulously between mom and dad. The lovable family pet tampers with custody arrangements, but ends up inadvertently showing how such arrangements are bound to fail anyway.

Christmas Party crackles with a tactile snowy scene in the Adirondacks mountains of upstate New York. It is a dark story of a man who is bitter and twisted by the passion he still feels for his ex-wife, who has remarried a local man who was once his friend. Transplant follows to its strange denouement, a fifty-year-old man who reluctantly agrees to meet the widow of a young man whose heart is now keeping him alive, following a recent operation.

Lost and Found hovers with great mastery over an encounter between a married man and a divorced woman at a Miami trade fair. Nothing much happens in the end, but the way Banks develops this elaborate, yet potent non-event demonstrates how great a story-teller he is.

Big Dog takes a number of liberal-minded dinner party guests – once again in a snowy up-state New York location - and pokes merciless fun at them, as they drink and begin to grate against each other.

The thing that messes with what should have been this convivial evening is the premature announcement of what should be great news for one of the party. Erik is the sculptor who is about to be awarded a prestigious grant, so thrilled with himself that he cannot keep quiet about it until the official announcement.

However, by thrusting the news unofficially on his hosts and fellow guests, he is jinxing the lucrative award, whose value dissipates in a welter of scepticism and hollow surmise as the meal gets under way. The sculptor's premature announcement also provokes a simmering pot of jealousy in a young gay writer at the ill-starred dinner table.

A highly-recommended collection.

Paddy Kehoe

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