Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 19 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] Think Hemingway, a crazy femme fatale and a macho man

Russell Banks patches together a mad siren and a womanizer in his new novel, 'The Reserve,' but the result doesn't do justice to his reputation as a strong author

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

By Russell Banks
287 pages

Russell Banks' new novel, The Reserve, bears less resemblance to any of his gritty, visionary epics, like his 1985 masterpiece, Continental Drift, than it does to a melodramatic B movie from the 1940s. Its two main characters are not his usual blue-collar workers, struggling against horrible odds to hold on to their glimpse of the American Dream, but a wealthy socialite and a famous artist who take their privileges for granted and who lead profligate, self-dramatizing lives.

The plot of The Reserve, which takes place in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1936, moves not with the swift, sharklike momentum of his best fiction but in a hokey, herky-jerky fashion that never lets the reader forget that Banks is standing there behind the proscenium, pulling the characters' strings. Even the language he uses is weirdly secondhand: a bizarre melange of Hemingway-esque action prose and romance-novel cliches that manages to feel faux-macho and sickly sweet at the same time.

How did things go so wrong? Perhaps part of the problem stems from the patched-together genesis of this novel - a novel, as Banks said in notes included in reviewers' galleys, that had several real-life antecedents. He wrote that the book's hero, Jordan Groves, was "based loosely" on "the flamboyant leftist artist, Rockwell Kent," and that his heroine, the dangerously troubled Vanessa Cole, evolved from his interest in Hemingway's affair with a socially prominent and emotionally unstable woman who became "the model for the darkly vengeful wife" in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and the distant widow in The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

The violent death and the destructive fire that cap this potboiler of a story apparently grew out of local Adirondack gossip that Banks once heard, while the references to one character's fate in the Spanish Civil War and another's in the Hindenburg disaster grew out of his historical research into the period.

In cobbling together these elements, Banks has struggled to concoct a plausible narrative, almost randomly threading one colorful incident and set piece after another onto a slender string. Though his myriad gifts as a novelist lend the resulting story more than a modicum of suspense, his two central characters remain paper-and-paste constructions, assembled out of a bunch of outrageous anecdotes and devoid of any sort of coherent inner life.

Vanessa Cole is a parody of the crazy femme fatale, a woman, Banks would have us believe, so beautiful that men are willing to overlook her obvious mental illness. (She imprisons her mother in their summerhouse and binds and gags her, because, she says, she believes her mother wants her to have a lobotomy.) More mad than madcap, she is prone to "dangerous, erratic behavior and wild exaggerations and outright lies," and was once arrested with a gun, apparently stalking one of her ex-husbands.

Just so the reader won't forget the perils of getting involved with Vanessa, Banks has Jordan think, "She was flawed, terribly flawed, as if something inside her, a crucial defining part of her mind, were permanently broken and made her dangerous to anyone foolish enough to get close to her." Think Angelina Jolie, coming off Girl, Interrupted, doing a campy impersonation of Bette Davis.

Jordan, for his part, is an equally silly and stereotyped character: a dashing womanizer who also happens to be a famous artist and a wartime airplane pilot. He's a left-wing man of the people, who hangs out with the rich and famous, an adventurer who has always returned home from his wanderings to obscure corners of the globe. Think George Clooney doing a tongue-in-cheek turn as a ladies' man on a show like Saturday Night Live.

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