Authors: Russell Banks
To my granddaughter, Sarah
T'S DIFFICULT FOR
me to speak as the author of
The Relation of My Imprisonment
, even though I did indeed write them and eventually published them under my own name. But it was so long ago, and I was such a different person then, that they seem to have been written by someone else. It's as if the books were written, not merely by a younger version of my present self, but by a different writer altogether. He's a man in his mid-thirties, which makes him thirty to thirty-five years younger than I am now. He's not I, but he's someone I happen to know rather well, almost intimately, the way one knows a much younger first cousin or a favorite godson. It's nice that we share the same name, since I'm not ashamed of the young man, and he seems to have launched a promising career as a novelist on his own. We don't look much alike (although there is a noticeable family resemblance around the eyes, nose, and mouth), in spite of the fact that I am bearded and have thinning white hair, and that other, much younger Russell Banks has a drooping moustache and long brown hair and wears those silly seventies-style sideburns. We're approximately the same height, but I'm about twenty pounds heavier than he. No one today would confuse either one of us with the other.
The titles of the three separate works of fiction in this book are his. The title of the book itself is mine. I chose it, not for the pun on our shared surname, but because in the life and career of their author they are like low-lying offshore islands, barrier-islands, perhapsâa half-submerged archipelago marking where once, way back in the 1970s, the continent met the sea. A young or beginning writer spends a great deal of time mapping the extensions and limits of his imagination. Some finish the job in a matter of weeks or months and, having quickly charted their personally owned territory and its coastline, are able to commence their life's work. The young man who wrote these three novels (two of which might better be counted as novellas), took a bit longer than most before getting his map made. He took about twenty years. From his late teens to his late thirties. These works represent an essential part of that process.
Banks came to writing, to the idea of being a fiction writer, hesitantly at best and in a tentative, indirect way. It was not something he felt born or even inclined to do. He did know by the age of eighteen that he wanted to be an artist, a visual artist, even though he had never visited a museum or gallery and had never actually met an artist of any kind. He and I back then had not yet come to know each other, naturally, so he had no one in the family to model himself on, no template against which to measure his nascent ambitions and fears. As a child he had displayed a talent for painting and drawing, and had received attention and praise for his pictures from family, teachers, and other adults. It was as if he had a gift for walking on his hands, however, or jugglingâa remarkable thing, yes, but not something a smart boy would make his life's work. Certainly not a boy from a working class family in rural New England in the 1940s. Still, he persisted in dreaming of becoming an artistâwhatever
was. He did know that making pictures was more like play than work, which was good. He did not want to spend his life doing work, certainly not the kind of work done by his father,
uncles, and grandfathers and their friendsâplumbers, carpenters, laborers, loggers. Their work seemed mostly to leave them exhausted and angry and resentful of men who sat in offices all day. They growled about their work and at the same time worried that someone would take it away from them.
At eighteen, with his family already busted apart by alcoholism, violence, and divorce, Banks packed a duffle and left home, hitchhiking south, intending somehow to learn how to be an artist and hoping along the way to join Fidel Castro and his men in the mountains of Cuba. It was January 1959. He had a copy of Jack Kerouac's recently published
On the Road
in his duffle and an issue of
magazine containing an article by a reporter named Herbert Matthews that glorified the young Cuban revolutionaries' effort to overthrow the brutal dictator, Fulgencio Batista. At that age, Russell Banks was a late-arriving beatnik with an adolescent boy's romantic, self-defining affection for the underdog, which he mistook for politics. In a rented room in Miami he drew pictures and made small paintings and tried to figure out how to get across to Cuba and up into the Sierra Maestra Mountains without Batista's people noticing. He had not begun to write yet. He had not really begun to
In early February 1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and their merry men rode into Havana in triumph and no longer needed the help of a skinny artistic kid from New England who couldn't speak Spanish anyhow. So he got a job moving furniture in a hotel. Fell in love with a girl named Darlene. Married Darlene at nineteen and became a father at twenty. Worked as a display artist and sign-painter at Webb's City, an early box-store in St. Petersburg, Florida. Divorced at twenty-one. Then Boston, New York, Los Angeles, New Hampshire, and Islamorada Key. On the run in a stolen car in Mexico with an ex-con and an AWOL sailor he'd met in a card game in a brothel in Key West. By now, however, he had begun to read. Recklessly, randomly, omnivorouslyâwith an appetite that fed on itself. And where before
he had spent his free hours painting pictures, Banks was now writing poems and making up stories. Thanks to public libraries and the bookmobiles that cruised once a week down the Florida Keys, he had fallen in love this time with literature and like a clever monkey was trying to imitate what he loved.
His first writings aped the modernist poets, Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, whose work was impenetrable to him and thus seemed easy to imitate. Wider reading gradually aided penetration, but made imitation rather more difficult. He tried Joyce, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Hemingway. Same thingâas long as he hadn't a clue as to what he was imitating, it was easy. As soon as he began to comprehend the source of the greatness of these works, they became sui generis. So he went to their sources: Yeats, Whitman, and Baudelaire for the poets; Melville, Flaubert, Ibsen, and Dostoevsky for the novelists. And so on, working backward in time, like an archeologist excavating an ancient, layered city with only a whisk broom and tin spoon for tools.
What I'm making here is a portrait of the artist as a young autodidact. Untutored, without guidance or even a freshman English syllabus, the literary-minded autodidact tends to seat everyone he reads at the same table, with Edgar Lee Masters placed next to Sappho, Edgar Rice Burroughs alongside Tolstoy, and Will and Ariel Durant cheek by jowl with Herodotus. Randomness in reading has its rewards and advantages, to be sure, but it brings with it a nagging suspicion that along the way many of the essential textsâthose that every properly educated man or woman has studiedâhave been missed. And often with that suspicion comes an insecurity that generates a desire, expressed by a tell-tale intellectual and literary strut, to show off what one has
missed. I sense in these early works of Russell Banks a bit of that. He seems to want to alert us to the breadth of his reading and its high level of literary sophistication. We can see that he's read his Laurence Sterne, his Gertrude Stein, and his John Bunyan and Robert Burton. We can see that he enjoys fable and
allegory as much as self-referential metafiction. We are invited to believe that he is, above all, a
That's not all he is, however, and we are grateful for that. For these are not merely apprentice works. In a carefully roundabout way, Banks is edging up on the themes that will probably preoccupy him as a writer of fiction for the rest of his life.
is aptly titled. Perhaps the only way he could contend with and come to an understanding of the pain and confusion of his childhood was by forcing its materials through the grid of fable. Later, having reconciled with his parents, he'll no longer need that grid and will write
Rule of the Bone
, also about family life, but told from the point of view of the abandoned child.
, for all its formal elaborations, is an exploration of the mysterious charisma that surrounds domestic violence and the godlike power held by fathers over their children. We will see Banks explore these themes further in the late 1980s in his novels
The Sweet Hereafter
The Relation of My Imprisonment
, ostensibly a parody of the allegorical accounts of spiritual testing written by John Bunyan and seventeenth-century New England puritan divines for the voyeuristic delectation of their religious brethren, is as much about the theme of redemption through suffering as novels Banks will write in his late-middle age,
It's interesting, as well as anxiety-producing, that with each novel or collection of short stories that he publishes, the young Russell Banks comes ever more closely to resemble me. It has become increasingly difficult for me to stay ahead of him. It's hard to find a genre or narrative mode that he hasn't already turned to, to come up with a theme or conflict or character that he hasn't found first, or to generate a plot that he hasn't thought of yet. I don't know what he'll write next, but it scares me to think that I may end up chasing
, and he may end up writing an introduction to
early novels. Or worse, to my late novels.
A poor prince who is weak in cavalry, and whose whole infantry does not exceed a single man, had best quit the field; and signalize himself in the cabinet, if he can get up into itâI say up into itâfor there is no descending perpendicular amongst 'em with a “Me voici! mes infants”âhere I amâwhatever many may think.
A Sentimental Journey
To go back to the beginning would be fruitless, timewasting, pretentious. It's much more productive, faster and more sincere to commence
in medias res
with the king squealing angrily, the princes, all three of them, lolling through their extended adolescences, the queen quietly comforting herself in her chambers, and the several secondary characters gathered together in small groups scattered variously about the palaceâthe Green Man (so-called), the Loon, the Twit, Genghis,
This, then, is not unlike the opening scene of a favorite opera,
by Hector Berlioz (after
by Virgil), part 1, “The Sacking of Troy.” That is, one thinks of that narrator, and of Cassandra, Coroebus, Andromache, Astyanax, Aeneas, Priam, Hecuba, Panthus, Helenus, Ascanius, Polyxena, Hector's Ghost, and others (in order of appearance), and one thinks of Troy or Carthage or of a castle-like citadel inside a ravaged city, of city walls and a vast plain beyond, and one recalls that particular narrative line and obtains thereby a pretty fair idea of how it all begins.
This is intended, actually, to be a family story, after the Greeks. But after Thomas Wolfe, too. And Gertrude Stein. Certain late nineteenth-century Russian novelists. William Faulkner. Marcel
Proust. Thomas Hardy. Henry James. D. H. Lawrence. New England poets of the mid-twentieth century. AndrÃ© Gide. The Scandinavian playwrights. Truman Capote. Wright Morris. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Vladimir Nabokov. John Milton. Philip Roth. George Bernard Shaw. Washington Irving. James Agee and Walker Evans. Charles Dickens. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sigmund Freud. Eudora Welty. William Burroughs, Jr. Laurence Sterne. Thorstein Veblen. William Carlos Williams. Edna Ferber. The Grimm Brothers. William Saroyan. Anton Chekhov. William of Occam. James Branch Cabell. John Steinbeck. Ellen Glasgow. Sarah Orne Jewett. Frank Norris. Katherine Anne Porter. J. D. Salinger. Franz Kafka. Anne Frank. Sinclair Lewis. Bede. Erskine Caldwell. Charles Addams. Tennessee Williams. James T. Farrell. Rollo May. Giovanni Boccaccio. Theodore Dreiser. Elia Kazan. Sherwood Anderson. Henry Fielding. Louisa May Alcott. Zelda Fitzgerald. Oscar Handlin. Thornton Wilder. Flannery O'Connor. The King James Version of the Old Testament. William Makepeace Thackeray. Ed Sanders. Jane Austen. Ignazio Silone. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ernest Jones. And Ford Madox Ford.âAfter these, too.
After them in
of course, if not in manner. Yet also, and perhaps more important than either time or manner, after them in a subtler way, and suggesting through that a previously unrecognized, yet ancient tradition, the nature of which should be apparent as soon as one has considered which authors, insofar as their names are absent above, cannot be said to participate in that tradition: The Tradition of the Bloody Orange.
RADITION OF THE
Someone appears on the horizon as a black speck, a fly stuck against the lavender sky. He draws closer and closer, at first slowly and then more rapidly, until he has drawn face-to-face with the viewer, whereat he is repelled. He tries not to reveal the depth and
extent of his revulsion, nausea, disgust, boredom, by describing himself, his family, his friends and lovers, and the enemies of all. At last, unable to conceal his true feelings any longer, he draws from the leather pouch at his waist a large Florida orange (of the hybrid type, called “navel”). He brings the perfect sphere slowly up to his mouth, which is ample, and chomps suddenly into it, splattering billows of blood over his face, hands, green lamÃ© shirt and tan suede boots. Then, continuing to eat at the orange, he turns and withdraws quickly to the horizon again, where he remains, a speck of changing color from black to red to orange and sometimes (to the naked eye) appearing cadmium yellow or even, as he should, green. From such a distance, he is quite beautiful to observe, changing color like that, especially against the lavender sky!
This is the start of the action. A handsome youth who wore slick green suits and strangely decorated hats went to the king with three sons and expressed in public a passionate desire to have one of the sons for his lover.
âI don't care which one, he cried.âAny of them will satisfy me. I have this thing about princes, he said.
For two days and nights, the king ambled down the many-tapestried corridors of the palace, laughing and murmuring to himself.âA thing about princes, indeed. That's rich!
It was a late, amber-colored afternoon. In the gymnasium the three princes practiced the sports. Naked and oiled, they ran and kicked and threw. Soft light from the windows above drifted down and shimmered over their sleek bodies.
One of the ballboys attending them, a cripple desperately
seeking favor and possible advancement, told them about the young man in the slick green suit and his strange request. The way the ballboy told it, the man's request was actually a demand, ominously put.
âHe gave your father, His Royal Highness the King, just three days to decide which one it would be, the ballboy told the athletes.
They laughed and called the ballboy a twit.âFar out, twit! they teased.
In defense of himself, the ballboy changed his story and said that he'd made up the part about the funny-looking hat with the geraniums in it and the tan suede boots and the moustache and even the accent with all the flat As. But it availed him nothing. The princes pelted him with handballs, badminton birdies, medicine balls, and basketballs. They even fell to rolling a shot put at his feet, aiming for the arches. They were disturbed.
The king fucked the queen on two successive nights, keeping the lights on throughout copulation on both occasions. He was obviously disturbed.
âI like a plucky faggot, he breathlessly confided to the queen after each of her orgasms. After his own, however, he remained silent.
The queen, pondering both his remark and the timing of his silences, had difficulty sleeping. At breakfast following their second night of love, she asked her husband,âHave you ever performed a sex act with a man? Or with a boy?
âMy dear, he answered.âI once caught and screwed a loon. Unforgettable! Jesus, I had an appetite! he bellowed, heading swiftly for court.
The three princes were already there, waiting nervously for him to arrive. They wanted to know beforehand how the king was going to handle this one. In this matter, they each had a private ambition for the king's policy. The oldest son was named Orgone. He was a well-known wrestler and bachelor. The second son, Dread, drove sports cars and was a big-game hunter. The third prince was named Egress (the Wild), a bad drunk, melancholy, a favorite of those fallen from grace of any kind. He was rumored to be dying of consumption. He kept a brace of fighting cocks and a kennel of Staffordshire pit bull terriers and wrote very successful, leather-rock song lyrics.
The story is about all these people, then: the queen, of course, and the king, the youth in the slick green suit, Orgone, Dread, young Egress, and the loon. The queen's name was Naomi Ruth, the king's name was Egress (the Hearty, sometimes the Bluff). The youth in the slick green suit had many names, all, as it will later turn out, aliases. And the loon was called Loon, sometimes Lone, Lon, Lonnie, l' Ange, Lawn, Lune.