Russell Banks

Meandering through Writers [on Writing]

Russell Banks seems interesting. I’ve not read him before. “A Novelist’s Vivid Memory Spins Fiction of Its Own” begins with a recounting of the story he often tells about becoming a novelist, including the almost cliché standard youth:

Back in the winter of 1961, I said, I was a twenty-one-year-old dropout, a kid with little more than a fantasy that he was a writer, living in the Back Bay demimonde among poets and hustlers, artists and drug addicts, musicians and con men. I was literary, but not literate, a late arriving beatnik with a taste mainly for getting wasted.

I love the way that this passage is offset by the “I said,” making its truth value suspect. I love the pairings of types. What a great way of chaining things together. It works. Of course it’s a sham, the same sort of sham that became the press kit for folks like Tom Waits. He goes on to recount how he gave up his lowly scrivener job to go to Florida to become a great writer, inspired by Hemmingway and all that. Great PR stuff.

In the story, he talks about an old hustler friend, Jocko, who finds him at a reading and confronts him with the lie. It was the hustler that suggested he go to Florida, not Hemmingway, and while the surface facts might be true, the essence of his motivation was a fiction. A failed relationship drove him to run away to Florida, not the pursuit of becoming a writer. The summation of the article really drives the essence of the piece home:

I asked Jocko why he’d hung around with all those poets and artists and musicians back then. “You were one scary dude, man,” I said.

He said: “Yeah, well, artists are a lot like gangsters. They both know that the official version, the one everyone believes, is a lie.”

He was right about that, too.

Looking into Banks a bit, a recent novel focuses on John Brown, who is coincidentally the poster child for the “Whiteness Studies” movement. Odd how these things all fit together.