The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks

This is the first Russell Banks book I’ve ever read (though he’s written many novels).  I have to say, at first I was skeptical and even intimidated by the book.  I tend to gravitate more towards prose that contains heavy poetry and language, and heavy philosophizing.  My literary heroes all tend to write in this style, and I like to read what I aspire to write.

Anyway, the book opens with one perspective of a tragedy and switches between perspectives.  The weakness to this approach is that Banks introduces the reader to a lot of characters in the novel, and gives us only the perspective of a very small handful of them.  The other perspective is that of a lawyer who plans on aiding the families in taking legal action and he has a strategy worked out on how to defend those who he believes are innocent.  The question is though, who is guilty?

I found it really odd at first that out of all the characters in the novel, Banks decides to use the lawyer’s; the lawyer is an outsider and out for personal gain, and therefore not really a liable narrator, despite what he may tell us about his reasoning for wanting to help the people of the very small fictional town of Sam Dent.  I was even reluctant in a certain kind of way to continue reading because I figured I didn’t care what the lawyer had to say about anything.  Yet, I continued reading anyways and thank God I did, because this section somehow turned into the one I cared about the most, despite that it feels displaced in the book.

I think that maybe one of the reasons why Banks chooses to tell us so much about the lawyer who enters this town somewhat un-solicited, is because he is a connecting character, joining all of the townspeople together.  Also, he is unbiased.  Yes, he is out for personal gain.  However, as an outsider he can see things logically and fairly, and can therefore see the tragedy at a pole’s length.  And Banks tells us about his own family life, about his wife and daughter and her childhood and her current state of despair and helplessness.  And because of this, he turns from a stereotypically sleazebag lawyer, into a character the elicits my sympathy and endearment.  

I’m not even finished reading the book yet but what  I can say is it really haunts me.  The setting of this snowy little town full of poverty-striken drunks, imbred “hick” families, a prophetic stroke victim and his masculine wife and a child-killing tragedy really creep me out and intrigue me.  Banks is also a keen observer of the human psyche and he uses his knowledge of people and tragedy in order to construct a believable account of an entire town, themselves haunted by a horrible accident.  I’d definitely pick up another book by Russell Banks.


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