In the study of Russell Banks’s rented home in Princeton, N.J., atop a bookcase crammed with novels, volumes of poetry and other accoutrements of the literary life, sits a faded yellow hard hat. It is a curious decorating touch, but one to which Banks directs a visitor’s attention with obvious pride. “My father wore that when he worked as pipe fitter,” he says. “It was the one thing I asked my mother for when he died, in 1979. I don’t know why I wanted it exactly. It just seemed emblematic.”
Emblematic, no doubt, of his own working-class roots. In the 10 acclaimed works of fiction he has published since 1975, Banks, 49, has returned time and again to the harsh realities and hard-won pleasures of blue-collar life in small towns like Barnstead, N.H., where he grew up. But his recently published and much praised sixth novel, Affliction, makes one wonder if his father’s battered hat didn’t serve another purpose as well: as a reminder that Earl Banks—plumber and construction worker, beloved father and feared alcoholic—was a very particular story still waiting to be told. Affliction is dedicated to Earl Banks. And though it is not strictly autobiographical, it is Earl’s story, and his family’s. “I had wanted to tell a story about domestic violence for years,” Banks says. “It was a central drama in my life, and it’s a story that is usually, for reasons of shame and alienation, not told. But I couldn’t really tell it until I was mature emotionally.”
The novel takes place in Lawford, N.H., the kind of bleak former mill town, Banks writes, that “people sometimes admit to having come from but where almost no one ever goes.” Its protagonist is Wade Whitehouse, a well driller and part-time cop with a failed marriage, a lust for liquor and a tendency, inherited from his father, to let his frustrations boil over into violence against those closest to him. As his tale unfolds in the words of his brother Rolfe, who has escaped to a nearby city, it becomes clear that Wade is trapped—by the town’s economics, by his own hopes and fears and, most of all, by the brutal beatings that warped his childhood. Violence has begotten violence, and Wade’s tragic end, when it comes, feels inevitable. “Affliction is a powerful, deeply troubling work,” writes Banks’s Princeton colleague Joyce Carol Oates. “This is realistic fiction at its most successful.”
Banks was raised in a town very much like Lawford. His father, Earl, was hardworking and a charmer, and Russell has many fond memories of him. But Earl had been abused by his own father, and when Earl drank—and sometimes even when he didn’t—he was a danger to his wife, Florence, and to Russell, the oldest of his four children. “I don’t remember not being physically afraid of my father,” Banks says. “He didn’t hit me that regularly, but often enough so the threat was always there.”
Banks sought refuge in the easy accolades of high school sports, excelling at football, hockey and track. He was also an excellent student in an environment where few children aspired to college. “We weren’t like new immigrants where one generation sacrifices to send the next to college,” he says. “My family was more like poor white trash who’d been around too long and become too disillusioned to believe that works. Their attitude toward children is ‘What’s good enough for me is good enough for you.’ ”
When his father deserted the family in 1952, 12-year-old Russell felt the loss. “I hated my father, and I adored him,” he says. “A relationship involving violence is incredibly focused attention—there’s a heat to it that’s almost erotic.” But relief far outweighed his sorrow. “Domestic violence creates a terrible vortex of shame and loneliness,” he says. “You know you’re not like the great American family, like the Bushes of Kennebunkport, who all stand around pitching horseshoes together. You’re these quarrelsome, upset, turbulent, wretched people who can’t seem to make their lives work that way. So you feel ashamed.”
Suddenly the man of the house, Russell took after-school jobs to supplement his mother’s meager earnings as a clerk in Wakefield, Mass., where the family moved in 1952. When Colgate University offered him a scholarship in 1958, it seemed the ticket to a better life. But Banks felt out of place at the college and bolted after eight weeks, intending to join Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. “It would have been perfect,” he says, with a laugh, “except that when I got to Miami I realized I didn’t speak Spanish and had no idea how to get to Havana.”
Instead, he took a job dressing mannequins for a Lakeland, Fla., department store, married a salesclerk and became, at 19, a father. (His daughter from that marriage, Lea, is now 28 and a psychiatric counselor.) During this period and for several years afterward, Banks found, to his dismay, that he was behaving very much like his father. “I was a barroom brawler, a very angry and physically aggressive person, and I drank heavily,” he says. (He has admitted also to being violent, at certain points in his past, “against people I loved, but…never against my children.” He will not discuss specifics.) “I think there are two ways to respond to the kind of trauma I had experienced,” he says. “One is to try to live the fantasy of being a good father and husband—and failing. The other is to withdraw emotionally, not to put yourself in that crucible of familyhood. I went through stages of both.”
Dimly aware that his relationship with his father was central to his life, he eventually returned to New Hampshire after his marriage failed in 1960. He settled in Concord, where Earl was working as a plumber. “I picked up the tools of my father’s trade and aped him in some ways,” he says. He also tried to discuss the past with Earl, but “he remembered the violence as such a rare occurrence that it didn’t seem like a big deal,” Banks says. “He was in deep denial.” Still, proximity brought a measure of understanding between father and son, who remained close until Earl’s death.
As a teenager, Banks had “fallen in love with literature.” By the time he got to Concord, he had decided that writing might be his calling. When the mother of his second wife, Mary Gunst (an acting student he married in 1963), offered to send him back to college, Banks gratefully accepted and moved his growing second family to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (His 14-year marriage to Mary produced three daughters: Caerthan, now 25, who works at the Nation in New York City; Maia, 21, an art student in Boston; and Danis, 18, a freshman at Brown.) The political ferment and literary excitement of campus life in the ’60s solidified Banks’s ambition to write socially conscious fiction. Since then, he has divided his time between writing and teaching—first at the University of New Hampshire, later at Sarah Lawrence, the University of Alabama and, since 1982, Princeton. Banks’s 1985 novel, Continental Drift, sold well and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; Affliction promises to find an even larger audience.
Divorced from Mary in 1977, Banks was later married for five years to Kathy Walton, an editor at Harper & Row. Because of his upbringing, he says, “I was left with a neurotic relationship to women.” Yet he is convinced that his fourth marriage, to poet Chase Twichell, 39, will last. “We joke that she waited until the right person came along, and I just kept trying until I got it right,” he says.
Banks and Twichell, who also teaches at Princeton, spend the academic year in a condominium near the campus and summers at their home in the Adirondacks. It’s a comfortable, cultured, upper-middle-class life—and one that Banks still occasionally marvels at. “Whenever you’ve ‘come up in the world,’ you look around and see people you know in your heart are just as bright and sensitive as you are, but they’re cutting down trees in the woods or in jail,” he says. “And you think, ‘Why me?’ ”
That question keeps Banks honest—and loyal to his origins. He admits there may be an element of survivor’s guilt in the responsibility he feels to write about people like Earl Banks. But there is another reason as well. “The story of the middle class and its pain has already been told, brilliantly and powerfully, by people like Updike and Cheever,” he says. “I feel an obligation as a writer to open my eyes to the lives of other sufferers and to tell their stories.”