Russell Banks is an American novelist who has been writing at the highest level for many years, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. For some reason, I’d read only one or two of his books over the years, so when I saw his latest at my local I took a flyer.
The many ways in which his new novel Foregone is an exceptional work are difficult to capture in a short review. There is the unusual and inventive set-up, and the stunning delivery of plot turns that time and again amaze. When I found myself a dozen pages from the end, I had to put it down to save and then savor those final pages.
Our protagonist is a celebrated Canadian filmmaker, Leonard Fife, who is dying. His long-time acolyte and then collaborator, Malcolm MacLeod, has a contract to make a documentary film about Fife before he passes. The filming takes place over the very few days Fife has left, with his live-in nurse wheeling him in and out of film sessions in the living room of the home he and his wife, Emma, have lived in for years. Malcolm plans to elicit pearls about filmmaking and the rest from the Great Man before he dies.
Fife has other ideas. He intends to tell the truth about his life—it’s not the simple story everyone’s heard of an American who dodged the draft to live his life in Canada, there’s a whole lot more to it. And he intends to have his beloved wife hear it all straight from his own mouth before he dies. This frustrates MacLeod, of course, but he owes his career to Fife, who will get his way if he stays alive long enough to tell his story. It also delivers to readers a novel-in-a-film we can watch right there on the page.
I won’t say much about Fife’s secret past, the first part of which involved a first marriage in the U.S. that presented the opportunity to live an easy and wealthy life it turned out he had no interest in living. They take a break from filming.
“He’s fighting off waves of nausea and thudding back pain. His body is a battlefield, as if his liver is at war with his kidneys and both have been mortally wounded. He’s woozy and suddenly confused about where he is exactly and who’s here with him. As long as he is talking into the mic and being filmed, he is able to forget his body, to wear it like loose clothing, and it doesn’t matter where he is located or who is there with him. But as soon as the camera shuts down and he goes silent, he becomes his body again, and he worries about where it is and who is near it.”
But he wants to keep going, and so does Malcolm. Emma not so much. And even Malcolm has come for a very different documentary—“This is supposed to be about your films,” he says at one point, “we’ve got questions about process, for example”—the documentary Emma, too, had been expecting and wouldn’t mind so much. But Fife has come to bear witness to all the lies he’s been living, and to leave Emma as he must, but only after coming clean to her. At one point he addresses the perplexed and impatient crew:
“It’ll sound like fiction to you, like I’m making most of it up, which is fine by me. I don’t care what you do with my story after I’ve finished telling it. I’ll be dead. You can cut and splice it any damned way you want . . . But no matter what you do with my story after I’ve told it, you’ll have seen and heard me tell my wife what kind of man she married and lived and worked with all these years.”
At one point, Banks has us—the readers—as perplexed as the crew by Fife’s running catalogue of his past crimes of the heart and head. This is all very intentional, of course--we feel like the crew feels, like even Emma feels, listening to all this. And Banks lets us know that he knows how we feel.
In the end, Fife delivers what he has come to say, and more. Indeed, far more than even he knew he had to say. He’s asked a question by Malcolm, and hidden somewhat among the pearls is:
“Back when they started sleeping together, he liked to tell her that she was the first woman he was attracted to who didn’t need him more than he needed her, and she said the same thing back to him, that he was the first man she was attracted to who didn’t need her more than she needed him, and they both took it as a compliment. . . .
Fife looks directly into [the] camera lens and says, You want to know if Emma, like all those others, is the real deal? For nearly forty years, she was, yes. Until this morning, when he woke and knew down to the bottom of his mind that he was dying and therefore he no longer had to be afraid of dying and realized that at last he truly loves her and desperately needs her to love him before he’s dead. It’s that simple. He needs to be loved by her more than she needs to be loved by him. Emma is still merely afraid of dying. For Fife, it’s too late now to be afraid of dying.”
Banks is not done swinging for the fences with those lines. But I’ll leave the rest to your reading.
Suffice it to say that here, again, is a Great American Novel that, like Richard Ford’s Canada, takes place north of the border. Here too, it seems, distance yields advantageous perspective.
Richard Yates has served as a beacon to writers like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. His debut novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Alas, while writers and critics loved his work—Richard Russo, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams and Robert Stone all wrote blurbs of unabashed adoration—none of his books sold well in his lifetime. I cannot explain that--Revolutionary Road is a stunning work of literary realism that shines unflinching light on the untold realities of so much domestic life in the 1950’s. It has often been described as part of the inspiration for “Mad Men” but has none of the schmaltzy bling.
I found A Special Providence, Yates’s second novel, while loitering in one of our local used books store. I began reading with the expectation that it would be a minor piece compared to Revolutionary Road, but was delighted to find out how wrong I’d been. This, too, is a Great American Novel.
The exquisite Prologue: 1944 sets up the characters who will drive the story, in twenty pages that could stand alone as their own short story.
Part One is the story of young Robert Prentice’s induction into the army in World War II, making his way in a rifle platoon that is eventually headed overseas, preparing to fight a war that won’t end soon enough to save him from that. Robert is a hopeful young man, and makes friends with soldiers named Quint and Logan, one of whom he idolizes until combat brings out the worst in him. Prentice has become ill, and Logan can’t see or doesn’t care about it.
Part Two gives us Robert’s youthful backstory, and the tale of the principal second character, his divorced mother. Alice Prentice is an artist and sculptor with unrealistic hopes and dreams that always have her too far out over her skis. Expectations that could never pan out fuel her ambitions. With a backstory of tragedy far greater than her recent divorce, she is unhinged and untethered to reality, and Bobby is carried along into one unstable living situation after another. Denied opportunities to form stable and lasting friendships, he grows into the soldier we’ve seen in Part One, eager to be one of the guys. The plot turn that closes Part Two is one we don’t see coming, though we’ve worried for Alice all along; and it sets up an echo later in the novel that helps Robert make it through a dark time on the battlefield.
In Part Three we learn that Robert, who joined the fighting just after the Battle of the Bulge, was coming down with pneumonia when last we saw him in Part One. He has spent five weeks in hospital, which “became an exquisitely peaceful time for Prentice, a time of warm sponge baths and clean sheets, of low, courteous voices and regular meals.” On discharge, checking through a depot to get back to the 57th Division, he’s happy to have a uniform that’s dirty enough to make him at least look authentic even though his time in combat has so far been limited. And his only real buddy, Quint, is gone. We are given Robert’s first experiences in combat, where he fights his own insecurities and struggles to feel he measures up to the soldiers around him.
The Epilogue:1946 brings us back to Alice, whose lofty goals and expectations have her waiting for something few artists achieve. The last page is a shocker, so entirely unexpected, so simple and yet so true, it cannot be given away in a review.
Real people, thoroughly rendered inside and out, jump off every page. The war years are drawn as perhaps only one who was there can manage; and yet, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, it’s less the battles than the interpersonal dynamics of those fighting it that drive the story.
I’ll leave you with this, from Richard Russo’s Introduction to the 2001 Collected Stories of Richard Yates:
“Yates has been described as a writer’s writer by people who consider that a high compliment, but I suspect Yates himself would have understood that the phrase trails an unintended insult by suggesting that only other writers are sophisticated enough to appreciate his many gifts. The truth is that Richard Yates is not a sophisticated writer. He doesn’t need to be; he’s far too talented to have much use for either smoke or mirrors.”
The long-awaited new novel by Colm Toíbín, The Magician—based on the life and times of Thomas Mann—was released today. Anyone who knows this great writer’s work will detect analogies to Toíbín’s The Master, a novel based on the life of Henry James. But there’s really no telling what to expect except, based on all his previous work—the lovely Brooklyn, the riveting The Testament of Mary, the wonderfully Irish The Blackwater Lightship and Nora Webster, to name just a few—one can count on literary fiction of the highest order. Watch this space for my review, or better yet, stop by your local for one of their first few copies.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .