Review of The
Reserve, by Russell Banks
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 3/21/08
This being my first time reading Russell Banks, I had high hopes. Yet after reading his latest novel, The Reserve, coupled with the many negative reviews it has gotten, my hopes have been a bit deflated, yet not totally. It turns out that while The Reserve is not a great book, it’s not as bad as some of what the reviewers said.
For one, this story is set during the Great Depression, on a reserve within the Adirondacks, and the characters are members of the idle rich—they lounge around, have no real skills, have not been impacted by the Great Depression like so many, and they happen to also create their own problems. Boy, do they. Insanity. Lobotomies. Incest. Adultery. Murder. You see where this is going. Basically, the soap-opera plot overshadows any actual character insights that might result. So many things go wrong in such short a space that one does not have time to absorb, or more importantly, care. For example, Vanessa Cole is a rich girl who has problems. We learn very early on that she resents her mother, or at least is desperately trying to distance herself from her. Part of her problem is she is worried her mother will have her committed to the loony bin and eventually have her lobotomized.
Then there is Jordan and Alicia Groves, a married couple who also is “having marital problems”. Jordan is an “artist” (and whether a very good one or hack we never know for sure) who secretly envies the poorer classes because they have to work for what they have or some silly reason or other. Alicia has an affair with a wilderness guide named Herbert St. Germain. She eventually confesses to Jordan about the affair and despite his previous infidelities, Jordan resents the fact that it is his wife asking him for the forgiveness instead of the other way around. Yet grounds for any insight within their relationship is lost when the story turns thriller--Vanessa Cole ends up gagging her mother and then eventually her mother gets accidentally shot, leaving Jordan, Herbert and Vanessa to decide what to do with the body.
So what do they do? They bury it, but then they are forced to dig it up because it would look bad for the reserve if the scandal ever broke out. At least I think that’s how it went. While sounding plausible it’s yet another straw for the camel’s back—pardon the cliché. It is clear that Banks’ intention was to show the selfishness as well as the disregard that money and class can cause, which would be fine except the only problem is that the characters are so unlikable, boring, and nor do we really care about them. There are also hints of past incest sprinkled within—these people are never happy and while the narrator is not trying to evoke sympathy, as readers we are supposed to take them for what they are, which is melodramatic children. Frankly, they’re not characters even worthy of their own story.
In reading both the reviews from the NYT and USA Today, both remarked that the only half-decent character is Herbert St. Germain, and maybe that is true yet it makes me wonder if these reviewers only copy what the others think. Herbert perhaps has the most potential as an interesting character, but he’s pretty much in the backdrop, as he already had his affair with Alicia who has confessed it to her husband Jordan and by then we’re back to Vanessa’s dead mother and what to do with the body. Questions, questions.
Other than showing the ennui of the spoiled upper class, I don’t know what else to make of this book. The writing isn’t as bad as some of the other reviews made it seem, (I don’t necessarily agree that he was imitating Hemingway as one reviewer noted) but it’s not a story that one will be pondering for days afterwards. Yet having said that, I can tell that Banks probably has done better and most likely has another few good books still in him.
One of the films this book reminded me of was In the Bedroom, where a film that had real potential to be great blew it by turning it into a thriller/revenge film mid way though. Instead of making it an exploration on grief, the main character kills his son’s murderer out of revenge? Gaining his wife’s respect? It doesn’t matter. Another film this book reminded me of was Unfaithful, where the Diane Lane character is having an affair, and instead of the film dealing with it realistically, when her husband finds out, he kills the guy. Tales as these tell me that the writers don’t wish to regard their audiences as adults. Instead the stories have to involve all this added hyperbole that frankly becomes a headache, yet the good news is that you won’t remember much once the tale is done.
This is not to say that murder can’t happen in everyday life, because obviously it can and it does. But as in The Reserve, sometimes too much can happen to too few people, and this is what we call soap operas. I wish I had better things to say, but Cloudsplitter is sitting heavily upon my shelf now begging for my read. Despite my disappointment with this book, I still intend to honor that.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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