Monday, December 24, 2007

Affliction by Russell Banks

This is the second novel I’ve read by Russell Banks—the first being Cloudsplitter—and I enjoyed this one just as I enjoyed the one previous. I did not know until after I had finished the book and looked for some of its reviews on the Internet that Banks had been beaten by an abusive father, but I was pretty sure of it anyway, just based on the reality of his fiction and the honest knowledge of his prose. A darkly powerful scene in the book comes as a flashback of just such a violent scene.

Pop held Wade with one hand by the front of his shirt, like Matt Dillon drawing a puny terrified punk up to his broad chest, and he took his left fist, swung it out to the side, opened it and brought it swiftly back, slapping the boy’s face hard, as if with a board, then brought it back the other way, slapping him again and again, harder each time, although each time the boy felt it less, felt only the lava-like flow of heat that each blow left behind, until he thought he would explode from the heat, would blow up like a bomb, from the face outward.

At last the man stopped slapping him. He tossed the boy aside, onto the couch, like a bag of rags, and said, “You’re just a little prick, remember that.”

Wade looked up and saw that Pop was still smoking his cigarette. Ma had her hands on the man’s shoulders and was steering him away from the couch, back toward the bedroom door, saying to him, “Just go on back to bed now, go on, go back to bed,” she said. “You’ve done enough damage for one night. It’s over. It’s over.”

“When I say do something, goddammit, I mean it,” Pop said over his shoulder. His voice was high and thin, almost a whine. “I really mean it. When I say do something, I mean it.”

“I know you do,” she said. “I know.”

Then the man was gone into the darkness of the bedroom, and the door was closed on him, and Ma was able to attend to her son’s bleeding mouth and nose, his swelling cheeks. She reached toward him, to soothe and cool the heated flesh of his face, but he shoved her hands away, wildly, as if they were serpents, and backed wide-eyed from her to the stairs behind him, where he turned and saw his older brothers waiting for him, huddled in gloom on the stairs like gargoyles.

He moved slowly past the two, and a few minutes later, when he had undressed and climbed into his bed, they came along behind him. For a long time, our mother sat on the couch, listening to herself break apart inside, while everyone else in the house, even Wade, let pain be absorbed by sleep—cool gray, hard and dry as pumice stone, sleep.

But Banks knows more than just what it means for a child to be beaten. As glimpsed at the end of the above selection, he knows what it means for a woman to be unable to protect her children from her abusive husband, and, most importantly for the novel, he knows what it means for a child who is beaten to grow up and struggle with the pressures and disappointments of adulthood.

Wade was locked into an old familiar sequence: his thoughts and feelings were accelerating at a pace that threw him into a kind of overdrive, a steady high-speed flow that he could not control and that he knew often led to disastrous consequences. But he did not care. Not caring was only additional evidence that he was in this particular sequence again. But there was not a damned thing he could do about it, and not a damned thing he wanted to do about it, either, which was yet a third way that he knew he was in this particular gear again.

The novel is filled with little glimpses like this, glimpses of what the world looks like to a man who had been violently disconnected from his emotions and his own vision of himself as a man, which is ultimately what Glenn Whitehouse did to his son. And in disconnecting Wade from his emotions, Glenn also disconnected Wade from everyone around him.

Other people were in one world; he was in a second. And the distance between their worlds caused other people concern and perplexity and made them curious about him—for here he was alone in his world; and there they were gathered together in theirs.

Affliction is a novel about this kind of loneliness, a loneliness Banks must have wrestled a great deal with himself.

So it was not really a question of what had happened to her; it was a question of what had happened to him. How had he come to this? How was it that he, Wade Whitehouse of Lawford, New Hampshire, a man who had once been as intelligent and complexly aware as she and possibly even gifted, was standing like this on the stoop of his ex-wife’s house, hat in hand, come begging for a visit with his child, a man wearing cheap mismatched clothes and driving a borrowed battered old stake-body truck, a man without a proper home to call his own, without a job, without any respect in the community, without a wife and with no one to care for but a drunken father who hated him and whom he hated—how had this sorry man come to be the adult version of the bright boy he had seen twenty-five tears ago in Lillian Pittman’s eyes?

Lillian’s voice through the glass was muffled somewhat, but Wade heard her words well enough: “Wait there. She’ll be right out.” Then she closed the inner door, and Wade was looking at his reflection. It was Pop he saw looking back, twenty or thirty years ago, haunted and angry, kept outside the family of man, compelled to stand in the rain and cold and darkness alone, while the others sat around a fire inside; and because he was not there with them, they were unafraid and slung their arms over each other’s shoulders and sang songs or whispered sweet secrets to one another, men and women and children full of good intentions and competence, people who were able to love one another cleanly. He, like his father before him, and like that man’s father too, Wade’s and my grandfather and our unknown great-grandfather as well, stood outside, hands buried in pockets, scowling furiously at the frozen ground, while everyone else stayed warm and loved one another.

All those solitary dumb angry men, Wade and Pop and his father and grandfather, had once been boys with intelligent eyes and brightly innocent mouths, unafraid and loving creatures eager to please and be pleased. What had turned them so quickly into the embittered brutes they had become? Were they all beaten by their fathers; was it really that simple?

It may be simplistic to assume that Banks is using his fiction to gain a better understanding of it for himself, a better understanding of what it is and where it all comes from, but reading a passage like that makes it difficult for me to believe that he isn’t doing exactly that. And as can happen when an artist pours that kind of soul-wrenching into his art, it helps elevate the novel beyond just a story about a man named Wade and the inner demons he is fighting.

There are several more darkly powerful scenes in Affliction. Here’s another, which occurs after Wade goes to visit his parents and discovers his father more asleep than awake in the living room of their freezing home. The furnace is broken, and Glenn hasn’t gotten around to getting it fixed.

Wade could see Ma in the bed, on the far side, where she always slept, covered with a heap of blankets. He walked to the foot of the bed and looked down at her. She lay on her side, facing away from him, and all he could make out was the outline of her body, but he knew that she was dead. He thought the words, Ma’s dead—when suddenly he heard a click and a loud whir from the floor beside him, and he leapt away, as if startled by a growling watchdog. It was the fan of a small electric heater coming on, and the spring coils began to glow like evil red grins behind the fan, and a hot wind blew at his ankles.

Stepping carefully away from the thing, he crossed to the head of the bed, where he could see the woman clearly. Beneath a mound of blankets and afghans, she wore her wool coat over her flannel nightgown and lay curled on her side like a child, with her tiny hands in mittens fisted near her throat, as if in enraged prayer. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was open slightly. Her skin was chalk white and dry-looking, almost powdery, as if her face would crumble to the touch. Her body resembled a feather-light husk more than an actual human body, and it seemed incapable of holding up the weight of the blankets that covered her to the shoulders and wrists. “Oh, Lord,” Wade whispered. “Oh, Lord.” He came forward and sat down on the floor, cross-legged, like a small boy, facing her.

Margie stood at the door, watching in silence, instantly comprehending. The room was icebox cold, and she could see her own breath, and she knew that the old woman had frozen to death in bed. She closed the door and walked slowly back to the kitchen, where Pop stood staring down at the stove.

What’s most interesting about this scene, at least to me, is the fact that we all know that the reason Sally Whitehouse is dead is because of Glenn’s drinking, as sure as if he had beaten her to death with his own fists. She was a woman who had chosen to stay with her abusive husband, had stayed with him and watched him beat and drive their children away, had withstood beatings herself, and had fatefully met her end in the same way that she had thus lived, alone and in fear. We all know this even though neither Banks nor any of his characters ever directly say it. It doesn’t need to be said. The truth of it is there so plainly on the page, in the description of Sally Whitehouse’s body, in Glenn’s and Wade’s and Margie Fogg’s reactions to the fact of her death, that to have one of them say it would be to push the fiction beyond the bounds of the cruel realism Banks has so deftly crafted.

And then there’s this scene at Sally’s funeral.

We all looked at Pop, who stood blinking in the sunlight, his flower held in front of him as if he were about to smell it. It was a strange moment. We were suddenly and unexpectedly aware of our mother’s presence in a way that until this moment we had either denied or had been denied. Her sad battered life seemed to come clear to us, and for a few seconds we were unable to look away from her suffering. We had looked away, averted our gaze, for so many reasons, but mostly because we all three believed at bottom that we could have and should have saved her from our father’s terrible violence, the permanent wrath that he seemed unable to breathe without. But somehow, the sight of that shrunken old man holding the flower before him in trembling hands, unsure of what to do with it, made us briefly forgive ourselves, perhaps, and allowed us to see him as she must have seen him, which is to say, allowed us to love him, and to know that she loved him and that there was no way we could have saved her from him, not Lena, surely, and not I, and not Wade. And not even the old man himself could have saved her from the violence that he had inflicted on her and on us. If he had taken himself out behind the barn one morning during his life with her and shot himself in the head, inflicted on himself in one awful blow all the violence he had battered us with during the years we lived with him, it still would not have released us, for our mother loved him, and so did we, and that awful blow would have been inflicted on us as well. His violence and wrath were our violence and wrath: there had been no way out of it.

The mixture of love and fear that Glenn’s wife and children felt for him is the saddest part of this book, and never more truthfully described than in this one paragraph. What must it be like to have the person you love the most also be the person you fear the most? Fortunately, not all of us know, but Russell Banks does, and through this powerful novel, he gives us all a glimpse of life within that reality.

One more item I can’t resist including here.

Lena and her husband, Clyde, had made Christ their personal savior, apparently the result of a visit from Him—a type of house call was the way they explained it—one night of despair four or five years earlier, and while the chaos of their life had not changed one iota, it had gained significant meaning, since they and their five children were now devoted to the life of the spirit and the next world instead of to the body and this one. Their disheveled and deprived daily lives were now regarded as evidence not of incompetence, as in the past, but of their new priorities. I did not pretend to understand the nature of the conversion experience, of being “saved,” one way or the other, or the teachings of the Bible Believers’ Evangelistical Association, to which they belonged, but it was clear to me that whereas before they had been depressed and frightened, for what seemed very good reasons, such as poverty, ignorance, powerlessness, etc., they were now optimistic and unafraid. Of course, according to the pamphlets Lena mailed to me from time to time, what they were looking forward to was the imminent end of the world, to earthquake and famine, to seas turned to blood, to plagues of sores, to legions of demons and the writhing demise of the antichrist, events that those of us who were not scheduled for rescue by the Rapture might find even more depressing and frightening than poverty, ignorance and powerlessness.

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