Liz's Reviews > Outer Banks: Three Early Novels

Outer Banks by Russell Banks
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Feb 12, 09

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Read in February, 2009

I am generally a fan of Russel Banks: "The Sweet Hereafter" is one of the most devestatingly beautiful New England novels of the last 25 years if you ask me, and I have read few collections of short stories as cohesive and compelling as "Trailerpark." "Outerbanks" collects Banks's three first novels, so to be fair I should mention that the three-star review is sort of an average.
The first novel in the collection, "Family Life," I would probably rate at two and a half stars. It's a sort of Medieval court tale set in the contemporary world. The cast of characters are a king and queen, their three sons the princes, the Green Man (who lusts after the princes), and the Loon (who is the King's philosopher-cum-fuckbuddy). It does a good job of lampooning bourgois domestic values and contemporary social mores, but it was a little high-concept/low-substance for me. Entertaining and a funny read, but a bit slight.
The third novel "The Relation of My Imprisonment," I would give three stars. A first-person narrative related from a prison-cell, it is also a story that evinces a large preoccupation with European social history. The protagonist has been condemned to life in prison for admitting to his profession as a coffin maker and practice of a religion that is a sort of cult of the dead which has just been outlawed. The exploration of religious persecution, though somewhat obvious, is thoughtful and thought provoking. And Bank's ability to immerse himself in the language and style of the 17th century is admirable, though at times a bit contrived.
The second novel, "Hamilton Stark," was far and away my favorite, though, and I would give it four and a half stars. It is narrated by an author who has decided to write a novel about one of his best friends, a misanthropic near-recluse who is notorious in his small New Hampshire town for such feats as nearly bludgeoning his father to death with a frying pan and turning his mother out of her own house after he usurps it from her. The author renames his friend Hamilton Stark and as he undertakes to get at the crux of what makes his friend (and Hamilton) such a compelling character he falls in love with "Hamilton's" estranged daughter, who is equally obsessed by the man and his flaws and is also attempting to write a novel about him. The book quickly becomes a novel about Hamilton Stark, a novel about the narrator, a novel about the daughter, and a novel about the author all at once. The way it plays with subject-hood, identity, and the relationship between author and reader is pretty brilliant. (And this from a reader who generally doesn't go in for these sorts of post-modern mind games.)The New Englandy, John Cheevery-ness of the setting and characterizations certainly didn't hurt in my eyes, either. I am a huge sucker for anything that gets at the spirit of where I grew up.

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