American Spirits by Russell Banks


Review by Walter Cummins

It may be me, but I find the three stories of Russell Banks’ posthumous American Spirits collection to be examples of gallows humor despite the grim accumulation of fatal gunshots, dead children, and bodies in water. Even though each story culminates in disturbing death and disaster, I get the sense that the underlying point is a version of what fools these mortals be. I have no idea whether Banks emulated Kafka, who laughed aloud when he read Metamorphosis to friends, but Banks’ characters embody ludicrous human folly.

Some of them wear MAGA caps as basic to the wardrobe, having voted for Donald Trump as an outlet for all their anger and frustration. Eager as they are to restore a sense of control—greatness?—to their lives they end up as victims of their own blunders or those of the people around them.

The stories capture the floundering lives of ordinary people in a rural upstate New York town called Sam Dent. In all three what was in the past serves as a venerable precursor to the decline of what is now, where people of limited insight overlook signs of looming calamity. Woodlands, destroyed or defective, dominate the first and last story of the collection. The middle story concerns two matching historic houses on the high ground overlooking the town, once the dominant property of cousins who founded the shoe factories that brought wealth and jobs, now suffering stages of disrepair.

The description of trees that opens the third story, “Kidnapping,” emphasizes the decline from the original growth. A narrator walking with his dog among the trees that surround the town describes the severity of the loss. The original forest “was displaced and replaced by these woods, which is a different and lesser thing”:

Our switchbacking trail passes near one ancient oak in the middle of a birch and popple grove on the way up and another located in among the scrub pines on the way down. They no longer produce descendants. Their bark is crumpled and withered. They are lightning struck and wind torn, split and scarred, and many of the largest branches are leafless and about to fall. Fungi—chicken-of-the-woods and mazegill and bracket—cling like carbuncles to their thickened, corrugated bark.

This opening prepares for the tale of the end of the Dent family, the crumpled and withered descendants of the domineering and manipulative Sam Dent whose pride assured that town bore his name, not unlike a man who puts his name on buildings. When this story begins, the last of the Dents are the elderly Frank and Bessie, whose son Chip was killed in Iraq, and their twenty-year-old mentally limited, antisocial grandson Stevie.

Frank, a genealogist of the Dents, focused on family pride, and “he was free to ignore his ancestor’s ancient crimes and personal flaws and concentrate instead on the myth of a Christian white man from New England with an ax and a rifle carving an American village out of a howling, uninhabited wilderness.” Thus, he wears his MAGA hat in hope of restoring the myth. He and Bessie end up murdered by two dim-witted Canadian drug dealers, their bodies dumped in a reservoir. Stevie, wrongly accused of his mother’s murder, ends up in prison, content each morning to report for his laundry duties.

I can’t imagine Banks not being amused when he wrote of the Canadian dealers, “They didn’t think of themselves as psychopathic killers. They were merely imitating the American gangsters they admired in American films directed by people like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers and TV shows like The Sopranos—”. In most ways, what happens to the last of the Dents is a comedy of errors.

Just as Frank Dent takes pride in his personal—but useless—arsenal of weapons, the American Second Amendment love of guns provides the irony behind Doug Lafleur’s deadly blunders in  the first story, “Nowhere Man.”  He, also obsessed with his weapons, insists on completing his annual deer hunting ritual in the 320 acres of woodland once owned by his father that Doug sold to Ari Zingerman to get out of debt.

Zingerman, an Israel Defense Forces veteran, gradually turns the acreage into a training facility for militants much more bloodthirsty than Doug and reneges on his promise to allow Doug and his family to still hunt on the land. Doug ignores him and kills a stag, leading to an altercation with Zingerman that results in Zingerman’s destruction of Doug and his family member’s prized guns. Three years later Doug tries to confront Zingerman on his property and surprises himself by shooting the two vicious dogs that attack him. Zingerman’s response ends with his self-defense shooting of Doug’s eleven-year-old son Max, and ultimately, after Max’s funeral, a drunken Doug drives his trunk into a tree and kills himself.

Zingerman then buys Doug’s eight acres, demolishing the house and planting trees on what had been a home. The story ends with this sentence about Zingerman’s plans: “He specializes instead in training men and women who wish to become skilled in martial arts and the use of automatic weapons and explosives for when it comes time to employ those skills in the restoration of America’s God-given, constitutional rights and freedoms.”

For all the bloodshed of the story, I read those words as tongue-in-cheek, Doug’s concerns with his right to bear arms and enjoy his freedoms overwhelmed by people as vicious as Zingerman’s dogs.

The collection’s middle story, “Homeschooling,” has a target unlike the gun cultures of the other two, in this case political correctness. Still, the past of Sam Dent looms like the matching once stately houses occupied by the principal characters—the typical American family of Kenneth and Barbara Odell and their three children in one and in the other the lesbian couple Judith and Claire Weber and their four Black children adopted from their drug addicted mother in Texas. Judith has a legacy to the town, Sam Dent born, still occupying the family house.

The people of Sam Dent mouth conventional pieties as they accept and praise this new unconventional family. When Barbara questions school principal Shipley, the woman smiles dismissively: “Well, they’re very protective of their children, as you can imagine. Give them a little time.”

Kenneth and Barbara come to suspect a different reality and finally have evidence when on two different evenings one of the children runs this their house begging for food and revealing that they had been locked unfed in an unheated room for some infraction of family rules. Eventually, the Odells learn more disturbing news and report the Webers to Child Protective Services, leading to the desperate flight of the Weber family in their SUV,  ending with a suicidal plunge into the swirling waters of an icy river.

Unlike “Nowhere Man” and “Kidnapping,” the “joke” is this story is not on people whose MAGA assumptions have been the source of their own doom. The wishy-washy residents of this version of Sam Dent avoid questioning their PC cliches.

Even Kenneth and Barbara deny the truth of what they know: “… there was nothing that anyone in town or anyone working for the county or state social services might have done to save those four children from being murdered and their two mothers from committing suicide. Nothing.”

When no one will buy the Weber property, the Odells do, their plans for it unclear. But the storyteller, the voice of the community, says, “Most of us in town say that, if it were ours, we’d hire a demolition company to bulldoze the buildings and haul the wreckage away and let grass grow over it.” That’s what Yuri Zingerman did with Doug Lafleur’s property.

Without victims whose ignorance becomes the source of their fate, I don’t find “Homeschooling” to embody the extreme gallows humor of the other stories. The Odells and their like consciously retreat into obliviousness and denial. Still, the combination of the three stories makes their collective title, American Spirit, a punch line for a failing, dispirited realm. Would Kafka laugh? He did write the unfinished satirical Amerika.