Warm hearts in an icy landscape

<i>The Angel on the Roof</i> by Russell Banks (Secker &amp; Warburg, &pound;16.99, 528pp)
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The Independent Culture

You know an author has achieved high status when the short fiction is collected, revised, annotated and published in a single hefty tome. Russell Banks has written nine novels over nearly 40 years, the last a monumentally ambitious epic of the American Civil War, Cloudsplitter. It might be tempting to view his short stories as the low-voltage come-down between the bright-light benders of the main event.

You know an author has achieved high status when the short fiction is collected, revised, annotated and published in a single hefty tome. Russell Banks has written nine novels over nearly 40 years, the last a monumentally ambitious epic of the American Civil War, Cloudsplitter. It might be tempting to view his short stories as the low-voltage come-down between the bright-light benders of the main event.

It was Raymond Carver, with whose small-town, blue-collar sympathies Banks has much in common, who said that he only ever had time to write short fiction in bursts between domestic crises. As a result, he composed heightened, urgent stories of exquisite beauty. Banks displays a similar intensity in the stories collected in The Angel on the Roof and, despite different circumstances, the rigours of the form turn him on to full charge.

The short story allows him "to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, and more broadly comic than is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which like a good marriage demands long-term commitment, tolerance and compromise".

There are no good marriages here. Banks is fascinated by the extremities of experience, the moment of breakdown in human lives, the point at which the everyday is ruptured, often violently, by chance or misjudgement. In "Djinn", a harmless madman, intoxicated by the voice of God, climbs to the roof of a café to proclaim his wisdom, only to be shot dead. "Defenceman" describes how a father, teaching his son to play ice hockey, leaves him helplessly vulnerable while tougher kids fire a puck in his direction at murderous velocity.

Family life unravels in an instant in "Assisted Living", when a drunken father returning from his mistress kills a small boy in a road accident. Cataclysmic change in a trailer-park community is explored in "The Fisherman". An eccentric outsider wins $50,000 in the lottery and stashes the money in a cigar-box under his bed. His neighbours construct elaborate ways to relieve him of his burden. It culminates in a scene of mad, comic violence.

Drunkenness, adultery, greed are charted with compassion and generosity. Life is precarious and delicate, the smallest; unforeseen event or action can cause it to collapse.

Yet, like sunlight reflecting from broken glass, there is resilience in characters who find hope in small-time tragedies. A divorced construction worker in "Plains of Abraham", witnessing his ex-wife's slow death from cancer, "was coming in off the road, too late, maybe, to make anyone happy, but here he was anyhow, trying".

There are no tricks played in these stories; the emotion evolves from the narrative without exhibitionism. However, Banks is not afraid to reach for the universal significance in small things, looking upwards to "the clarity, objectivity and love that is usually thought to be the exclusive prerogative of gods". His prose is unadorned, muscular and taut, as crystalline as the frozen New England countryside. The Angel on the Roof is a fitting tribute a great American writer who, with fierce tenderness, reaches into the dark heart of our lives in stories with a rare ability to illuminate and transform.

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