“Never been there myself,” a bartender tells a customer looking for exotic sex in Russell Banks’s incisive new collection of stories, “A Permanent Member of the Family.” “But I’ve heard no matter what you’re into you can find it behind the Green Door.”
There’s no shortage of green doors in Banks’s fictional world, and they don’t all lead to clandestine brothels. His characters are repeatedly given opportunities for transgression — for marital infidelity, violence, criminal behavior or for simply becoming, if fleetingly, something other than what they’ve been. But they know there’s a price to be paid when they take that step into terra incognita. Most, like the aging bartender in “The Green Door,” ultimately decide just to watch from the threshold, resigned to the “cloudy dissatisfaction” of their safer, less complicated lives.
In “Lost and Found,” Stanley, who runs a plumbing supply company, attends his industry’s annual convention in Miami. Like many of Banks’s protagonists, he’s a man of a certain age, standing halfway down the rough backslope of midlife virility, wondering whether there were things he should have done differently. Now he has a chance to find out. He bumps into Ellen, a much younger woman with whom he had a near-affair at the same convention five years earlier. Ellen is still alluring, still interested, and Stanley finds himself once again on the brink of betraying his marriage. But this second chance proves no easier to grasp than the first. In the end, the only certainty for Stanley is that whatever choice he makes will lead to regret.
“Snowbirds” begins with Jane Deane, a high school guidance counselor, flying from upstate New York to Florida to comfort her newly bereaved friend, Isabel, whose husband has just died of a freak heart attack. Jane expects to find a grief-stunned widow at the airport, but Isabel turns out to be disconcertingly chipper, full of exciting plans for her new unattached life in the tropics. After the funeral, she confesses to Jane that her husband’s death has been a liberation: “I’ve been feeling high, almost stoned, more excited by my life than I’ve felt in years.” And when the time comes for Jane to go back north, back to her husband — “her dour companion and the permanent witness to her remaining years” — she hesitates.
“I would be happy if you stayed here,” Isabel offers.
“Until you decide what you want.”
Exactly what these characters want, of course, is never easy to articulate, and as Oscar Wilde observed, getting it is often as tragic as not getting it. An artist in “Big Dog” wins a MacArthur “genius” grant, but finds that the award comes at the cost of his confidence, his artistic unassailability and perhaps even his marriage. An ailing sales rep in “Transplant” receives a young man’s heart but realizes — many years too late — that it won’t replace another part of himself, a part he lost along the way.
Banks is a master of the kind of old-school, unadorned realism that hasn’t really been the fashion in short stories since the days of Raymond Carver. But here he executes it with a psychological precision that would be the envy of any of the latter-day fabulists or word-drunk genre-benders currently in vogue. And while most of these stories cleave to his signature plain-spoken aesthetic, there’s still room in this sly collection for a few surprises, including a grisly, satiric parable called “Blue.” I won’t give away any details, but I will say that after reading it, you may never set foot in a used-car lot again.