The Reserve, by Russell Banks

A couple of years ago, I read Banks’ The Darling, and loved it. So, recently, as I began to ache for good fiction again, I looked Banks’ work up to see what recent offerings he had, and I found The Reserve. This one is clearly a departure for the author, something of an experiment, I think, but still within his sensibility of sympathy for various versions of the world’s oppressed masses.
The story takes place in upper state New York, where Banks now lives, and is a dramatic rendering of rich folks who owned and vacationed in the scenic woods south of Lake Champlain in the 1930s, just as World War II loomed.
The plot centers about a well-to-do artist, Jordan Groves, his wife, Alicia, the beautiful but troubled daughter of a rich family, Vanessa Cole, and a local handyman Hubert St. Germain. I won’t delve too deeply into the plot, but there are twists and turns enough for the most experienced mystery reader. Of course, there’s sexual tension between Jordan and Vanessa, but this isn’t the story Banks intends here.
Banks uses Hubert St. Germain as a social counterpoint to these rich folks and their intrigues, who clearly cross the moral and legal line in trying to put a “proper” face on their doings. I suspect that Banks’ story was been built around one sentence Hubert speaks to Alicia (on page 224 of the hardback version, if you’re interested):
“For maybe the first time in my life since I was a kid, I don’t know if what I’ve done is right or wrong.”
The sensibility here is that in 1930s America, the have-nots look to the haves as exemplars of social morality. When Hubert becomes involved in the dark side of the Cole’s and Groves’ lives, his life’s moral foundation crumbles.
I wish Banks had built his story more forthrightly around this idea. Sadly, He seemed to flounder through most of the book in grasping this ethical point.
And here I have to comment on Banks’ writing style. It’s perfectly permissible for writers to experiment with style and structure, as Banks seems to do here. While as a reader I have my stylistic preferences, I’m always open, simply to what works. To my mind, what Banks does here doesn’t work. His narrative descriptions of the Reserve’s geography do justice to this gorgeous place, and he constantly poses insightful views of his characters, their complexities as persons. It’s how he does this that unsettles me. In the midst of dramatic scenes, he drops into narrative to explain the characters’ backgrounds, their motivations, rather than work them intimately into their actions in the scenes. And he tends to push setting depictions into the scenes. All this has the effect of making the characters seem more superficial than the author obviously intends. As a result, the book had the effect on this reader of a historical romance novel.

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