American novelist and activist Russell Banks died on Sunday of cancer at the age of 82.
Banks built an A-list literary career writing about working-class families and immigrants who struggle on the margins of American life.
“He became quite a brilliant chronicler of race tensions in the country and what it takes to survive in this country — and what it takes from you to survive in this country,” said Michael Coffey, the poet and former editor of Publishers Weekly.
Russell Banks was raised in a rough corner of New Hampshire and lived much of his life in Keene, N.Y., in an equally hardscrabble part of Upstate New York known as the North Country.
Along the way he honed a love for hardscrabble people.
“Most of the characters at the center of my stories are difficult to live with, even for the fictional characters who live with them,” Banks said at a reading of his work at the Adirondack Center for Writing in Saranac Lake in 2021.
“I lived with people like that in my life, in my childhood growing up. They’re not that different from the people who surround all of us. We live with them and we love them.”
Banks’ break-out novel was Continental Drift published in 1985, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. It’s the story of a man from New England and a Haitian woman, an immigrant, whose lives collide and unravel in Florida.
“This is an American story of the late twentieth century,” Banks wrote in the opening section of the book. He went on to become a best-selling novelist whose stories were translated into prestige Hollywood films.
Atom Egoyan’s rendering of Banks’ novel The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. It’s the story of a deadly school bus crash that forces a northern town to wrestle with grief and accountability.
A later film based on Banks’ novel Affliction won an Academy Award for actor James Coburn.
According to Coffey, Banks evolved into a gritty realist who drew readers into worlds that are often invisible, including failing small towns.
“The North Country in Upstate New York resonated a lot with the New Hampshire of his rough, early years with a very abusive father,” Coffey said.
Banks spoke publicly about his alcoholic, abusive father and his stories often described generational violence between men.
“All those solitary dumb angry men, Wade and Pop and his father and grandfather had once been boys with intelligent eyes and brightly innocent mouths,” Banks wrote in Affliction.
“What had turned them so quickly into the embittered brutes they had become? Were they all beaten by their fathers; was it really that simple?”
At the reading in Saranac Lake in 2021, Banks talked about the fact that many of his characters, like his neighbors, were growing more angry, more politically disaffected.
He said journalists had begun asking him a new question:
“Your characters in all your books, would they have voted for Donald Trump?” Banks recounted.
“Yeah, they would. And the journalists would say, ‘how can that be? I like your characters, I think they’re wonderful, sad beautiful people, how could they vote for Donald Trump?’ That’s the whole problem here, that’s what we have got to understand.”
Banks himself was progressive. He flirted as a young man with the idea of joining Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Later he was an activist for prison reform, civil rights and other causes; but he insisted his books were never political.
One of his most celebrated novels, Cloudsplitter, is about the abolitionist John Brown, who is buried near Banks’ home in the Adirondack Mountains.
When critics complained his treatment of Brown wasn’t accurate, Banks pushed back, arguing that his struggle was to catch the mythic voice of his characters, not historical fact.
“Brown was for me a powerful resonant figure where many significant lines of force crossed and converged,” Banks said. “Race certainly, political violence, terrorism, religion, natural law and so on.”
Russell Banks made no bones about wanting to be counted among the really big American novelists. That’s what he aimed for in a lifetime of stories about fragile people and the powerful sometimes mythic forces that break them.
Banks is survived by family, including his wife the poet and publisher Chase Twichell.
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