Harper, 2008, $24.98
There is much to be said about Russell Banks’s new novel, The Reserve, which, like most of his novels, is set near his home in upstate New York. Luc Sante praised it in the New York Times Book Review; his colleague Michiko Kakutani called it a clichéd potboiler. Two things seem certain: Banks clearly had a hell of a good time writing it, and it is sinfully fun to read.
Where his earlier novels (The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, Rule of the Bone) tend to focus on the lives of contemporary working-class small-town Americans, The Reserve takes place on a secluded privately owned estate in the Adirondacks at the cusp of the second world war. Banks has said that he wrote it in part out of his conflicted feelings about these estates, which protect nature but restrict it for the rich, and in part out of hearing local folklore about a politically radical, handsome artist who wrote illustrated books documenting his travels and romantic conquests. Hence he created his Hemingwayesque hero, Justin Groves. (It may have been difficult to think of Russell Banks in the past without evoking Hemingway, but The Reserve seals the deal.)
The Reserve may well be a potboiler, but what could be more enjoyable than a well-written potboiler? True, in many ways the characters are stock: a manipulative, tragically beautiful femme fatale with father issues; the dashing libertarian artist; his sturdy wife; a sad, non-verbal hired guide who’s good with his hands. They’re all sleeping with one another in a Midsummer Night’s Dream configuration that would give Desperate Housewives a run for its money. But the plot takes some interesting turns and lends the characters moments of self-revelation that elevate it beyond its Hollywood gloss. Justin Groves is as confused as a boy when the world as he knows it falls apart, upon learning that the adulterous roles are reversed in his marriage:
“As long as he knew that he was the one who lied, who kept secrets and generated elaborate deceptions, then he knew who he was and how that man behaved. As long as he believed that Alicia never lied or kept secrets or deceived him, he knew who she was and how she behaved.”
Vanessa Cole is perhaps the most clichéd at the outset, with her “scarlet” lipstick, “luminous” skin, and troubled past. (Kakutani mentions Angelina Jolie; in fact, I don’t think I’ve read a review of this book that doesn’t cast the roles.) But the moments in which Banks’ omniscient narration slants toward her interior life and conflicted grief at her father’s death are perhaps the strongest in the book. An incestuous dynamic is suggested, but we are never sure how much is in Vanessa’s troubled imagination and how much is real. This is not new territory for Banks—The Sweet Hereafter includes a long section in the first-person perspective of a 16-year-old girl who has an incestuous relationship with her father. In both novels, the depth and sensitivity with which Banks (a father of daughters himself) portrays a uniquely feminine experience is impressive.
This perspicacity is where The Reserve departs from the limitations of the potboiler. Banks fuses his period piece with a retroactive evolution of understanding between men and women: what haunts and informs our passionate entanglements.