Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Halo Again

By Ben Winters

JUNE 5, 2000: 

The Angel on the Roof by Russell Banks (HarperCollins), $27.59, 506 pages

A friend, on noticing my copy of Russell Banks' new 500-page collection of stories: "Wow. Short."

Well, shorter anyway. One of the many rewards of "The Angel on the Roof" is a matter of scale; the longest of these pieces is a mere fraction of the girth of "Cloudsplitter," Banks' dense and daunting (and marvelous) fictionalized account of abolitionist warrior John Brown. It's a nice change of pace having Banks' fiction by the spoonful, rather than by the keg. Still, whatever the dosage, it is powerful stuff.

Take "The Fisherman," which, like most of Banks' tales, involves warm-hearted people in a cold place. Merle Ring is a socially maladroit ice fisherman who wins the lottery and finds his acquaintances are suddenly his best buds, ponying up, vying for a cut. Simple stuff, but Banks spins out what is essentially a long parable with a very basic moral lesson--greed is bad--in such a way that we deliver the message to ourselves; he just explains what's going on. The story contains my new favorite sentence, a model of Banks' signature style, a sort of magical understatement: "The winter continued to bear down, quite as if Merle had not won the lottery."

Banks and Merle are right--greed is bad--but the author manages to remind us that the message is still worth relaying. In lesser hands, the ending he chose, with desperate fools scuttling about on the ice for bills being tossed in the wind, would seem ridiculous, impossible; but Banks makes situations like this work. Time and again in "The Angel on the Roof," I felt like I was watching a real thing happen, saying to myself, "It's like something out of a book." A god-awful, fatal coincidence in "Plains of Abraham"; a pathetic, bovine-related marriage failure in "Cow-Cow." Banks writes stories that are impossible and honest, ridiculous and terribly true.

Better still, he has the gift of letting us inhabit the world with his characters without pushing judgments on them; his descriptions are careful, just the plain facts of the matter, no damning or deifying going on here. A quick sketch called "The Burden" (and if there is a flaw in this collection, it's that too many of the stories are simply sketches, and feel like the seeds of greater things left unfinished) is the best example: A father has decided that he can no longer support his wayward son, and gives him the boot. We're not taught that he did the right thing or the wrong thing, or that the son is a good son or a bad son. Banks isn't moralizing, see--he's just telling stories.

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