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The working class gets stubbed out in Russell Banks' posthumous 'American Spirits'


The stories in Russell Banks' new short-story collection, American Spirits, feel like the most erudite guy at the bar telling you a story he'd heard from a different guy at the bar the other night. Which makes sense considering Banks, who died in 2023, based these stories off gossip he heard living part-time in Keene, New York.

"He used to go down to the local roadhouse and drink beer and watch games with the local guys," says Banks' widow, Chase Twichell, who is a poet. "And people would tell their secrets and their stories to him."

In American Spirits, those secrets and stories all take place in Sam Dent, a fictional small town in upstate New York. Developers poke around the land for possibilities. People come and go during the summer for vacation. And the locals try to figure out ways to get by, but it often doesn't end well. Many of the characters in Sam Dent are frustrated and powerless, but they find some cold comfort in politics.

Author Russell Banks delivers a keynote address during the Hemingway & Winship Awards ceremony at John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, on April 4, 2004.
Chitose Suzuki / AP
Author Russell Banks delivers a keynote address during the Hemingway & Winship Awards ceremony at John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, on April 4, 2004.

Banks had a long career writing about people struggling with hard pasts and uneasy futures. He was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Two of his novels, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, were turned into movies, with a third on the way. But Banks' editor, Daniel Halpern says American Spirits is the last of Banks' writing, and that Banks went into it wanting to write about Trump voters beyond the usual talking points.

"He never made value judgments, as long as I knew him. Which is 50 years," Halpern says. "He had a deep well of kindness and understanding. And he was someone who you felt comfortable talking to. And I think it's one of the reasons that allowed him to write in such depth a variety of different characters."

In the opening story, "Nowhere Man," a Sam Dent local named Doug sells some of his land to a New Jersey businessman who builds a shooting range. The two butt heads, and Doug feels increasingly frustrated and untrustworthy of everyone except for President Trump. He tries to explain this to his wife, but can't. Banks writes:

"It was like a ball of snakes, and he couldn't separate the many strands of oppression and humiliation and identify their individual weaknesses and kill the snakes by cutting off their heads one by one and wake up one morning brimming with self-respect, a man among men admired by women and children and other men..."

In another story, an elderly man puts on his MAGA cap right before he and his wife are kidnapped by drug dealers. And in "Homeschooling," a young family moves next door to a lesbian couple with four adopted Black children. Everyone gets along well enough, until they don't. "In Sam Dent, race, as a meaningful social category, trumped both lesbianism and same-sex marriage," Banks writes.

Inspired by Sherwood Anderson's classic short story-cycle Winesburg, Ohio, Banks doesn't present Sam Dent as a folksy idyllic place where everyone goes along to get along. The differences are apparent and impossible to ignore. And that's true of Keene, too. "Our little town had a big summer population that would come in," Twichell says.

"And so it was always wealthy summer people on the one hand, and the local people who were running the service industries and so forth. And they were the caretakers, and the waitresses, and the housekeepers and the snowplow guys and so forth," she says. "And Russell definitely identified with the local people more than the summer people. He was very uncomfortable in that role as a summer person."

In a 2013 NPR interview, Banks remarked that he spent the last quarter century writing about the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and was finding that his work was serving a more and more relevant function. "It's important for me to preserve certain values so that they won't be forgotten, " he said. "And I think that's what poetry and fiction, drama, art does anyhow - is preserve our essential human values."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.