Tuesday, February 27, 2024

11. Affliction by Russell Banks

Nice edition
Readin me some literachoor!  I think I must have been drawn in by the trade dress as this is a nicely produced paperback with a great illustrated cover and layout from 1989.  A part of me was also curious about Banks' work, which I guess I learned about when The Sweet Hereafter movie came out.  Since it was Canadian, it got a lot of press with the assumption that everybody should know who Russell Banks was.  Well I guess I finally do now know.

This is a sad book.  It starts out seeming to be like a good noir, with a brother telling the story of his older brother's crime (not yet detailed) and subsequent disappearance.  But it is much more of an exploration of male violence and small town New England.  The protagonist, Wade Whitehouse, is the high school cool guy with a mean streak who has lost his way, now the local police officer (basically directing traffic in front of the school) and dogsbody for a local developer.  His ex-wife has moved with their 11 year-old daughter to the bigger city down south and Wade keeps screwing up every time it is his turn for custody. As the brother unveils his investigation into Wade's unravelling, we see into his mind and slowly get his entire history, especially that of the abuse he suffered at the hands of their alcoholic dad.

It is a moving book and a stark portrayal of what today is known as toxic masculinity.  In my adult life, I have been tangentially exposed to the working class side of New England, where the proximity of Boston and New York City, as well as just being older, makes the distinctions between the rich and poor much more stark than on the west coast.  Affliction really gives you a look at the roots of the poverty and resentment from a neglected small town where everybody with any spark or imagination flees.  In the description of the fictional New Hampshire town of Lawford, it reminded me a bit of Stephen King's It, though obviously somewhat less fantastic.

Though many mainstream reviewers called this noir and tried to compare it to a hard-boiled thriller, it really isn't.  There isn't much of a mystery, besides what is held back by the narrator.  It lacks the punch of a true noir because it is so verbose.  However, it does deliver some thoughtful and powerful substance on what makes men violent and some ideas on how we can stop being so.

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