"A Permanent Member of the Family" (Ecco), by Russell Banks
Russell Banks has long been criticized as being too depressing, too edgy, too dark. But one could argue that life is also many of those things and struggle is often a key to hope and future happiness. These are the moments that Banks chooses to focus on in "A Permanent Member of the Family," his new collection of 12 short stories, six of which haven't previously been published.
All the stories are set in the northeastern United States and most shine a harsh light on broken or damaged relationships — dishonesty, adultery, divorce. Dark? Yes. Depressing, perhaps. But Banks' prose is rhythmic and poetic. His insights are surprising, like in "Transplant," where the heart donor's widow wants to meet the recipient, or in "Searching for Veronica," where a man meets a woman in an airport bar and she shares stunning secrets about herself with a stranger, or in "Lost and Found," where a bored conventioneer has a flirtation with the hotel events coordinator.
In the latter encounter, the man confronts aging: "These were feelings about himself that he had lost bit by bit over the years of his marriage and middle age, small increments of loss, so that he wasn't even aware of the loss, until that night when they ended up alone in his room at the Marriott."
Unlike many short stories, Banks tells gratifying, sewed-up tales. Readers may be left wanting more from the characters he creates, but he doesn't leave his stories unraveled. True to form, he ties them up, not neatly, but thoroughly and satisfyingly.