Russell Banks, an award-winning fiction writer who rooted such novels as Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter in the wintry, rural communities of his native Northeast and imagined the dreams and downfalls of everyone from modern blue-collar workers to the radical abolitionist John Brown in Cloudsplitter, has died. He was 82. Banks, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, died Saturday in upstate New York, his editor, Dan Halpern, told the AP. Banks was being treated for cancer, Halpern said. Joyce Carol Oates, a former Princeton colleague who referred to Banks on Twitter as a great American writer and "beloved friend of so many," said he died peacefully in his home. "I loved Russell & loved his tremendous talent & magnanimous heart," Oates wrote.
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, and raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Banks was a self-styled heir to such 19th-century writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, aspiring to high art and a deep grasp of the country's spirit. He was a plumber's son who wrote often about working-class families—whether those who died trying to break out, or those like himself who got away and survived and asked "Why me, Lord?" Banks lived part of the year in Florida and for a time had a home in Jamaica, but he was essentially a man of the North, with an old Puritan's sense of consequences. Snow fell often in his fiction, from the upstate New York community torn by a bus crash in The Sweet Hereafter to the desperate, divorced New Hampshire policeman undone by his paranoid fantasies in Affliction.
In Banks' critical breakthrough Continental Drift, published in 1985, oil burner repairman Bob Dubois flees from his native New Hampshire and goes into business with his wealthy brother in Florida, only to learn his brother's life was as hollow as his own. Cloudsplitter was his most ambitious novel, a 750-page narrative on John Brown and his improbable quest to rid the country of slavery. The story long precedes Banks' lifetime, but the inspiration was literally close to home. Banks lived near Brown's burial ground in North Elba, New York, and he would pass by often enough that Brown "became a kind of ghostly presence," the author told the AP in 1998. Banks was a Pulitzer finalist for Cloudsplitter in 1999 and had been one 13 years earlier for Continental Drift. His other honors included the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Cloudsplitter and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Two of his books were adapted into acclaimed films in the late 1990s: The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Ian Holm, and director Paul Schrader's Affliction, which brought James Coburn an Academy Award for best supporting actor. His books often told of absent and failing fathers, and Banks' own father, Earl Banks, was an alcoholic whom the author says beat him as a child and left him with a permanently damaged left eye. "Over the years, I think that I've been able to make my anger coherent to myself, and that's allowed me to become more lucid as a human being, as a writer, as—I hope—a husband, father, and friend," he told Ploughshares in an early '90s interview. "It's very hard to be a decent human being if you're controlled by anger that you can't understand. When you begin to acquire that understanding, you begin to become useful to other people."
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